OF OUR FIRST MYTHOLOGIES
by Michael Witzel
(OUP, NY, Dec. 2012)
< A DETAILED SUMMARY >
§ 1. Introduction
The aim of this book is to show the origins, deep in prehistory, of most of the mythologies of Eurasia and the Americas (“Laurasia”). Beyond that, a brief look is taken at the remaining kinds of mythology, found in the southern areas: Sub-Saharan Africa, Melanesia and Australia (“Gondwana Land”). A comparison of both major types holds out the promise for gaining access to some of the earliest myths told by anatomically modern humans (“African Eve”).
The complex course of investigations begins with the contents of the various Laurasian mythologies and, more importantly, their unique narrative structure. They share a common story line that tells of the creation, in mythic time, of the world, of several generations of deities during four or five ages, of the creation and fall of humans, and finally of an end of the universe, sometimes coupled with the hope for a new world.
The investigation is comparative and historical, taking its clues primarily from the oldest available texts. It aims at reconstructing the original proto-Laurasian mythology, its narrative structure and its contents, as well as the regional and local versions that have emerged from it.
The reconstruction and analysis of Laurasian mythology is counterchecked by a survey of the ‘southern’ mythologies (of Gondwana Land). They differ in some crucial aspects, such as in missing an account of the original creation of the earth. More importantly, they do not have a comprehensive story line such as the Laurasian one.
The results of these investigations are closely mirrored by those of archaeology including early Upper Paleolithic art, of comparative linguistics and human population genetics. They all point to the origin of anatomically modern humans in Africa and their subsequent spread along the shores of the Indian Ocean, up to Australia and southern China, around 65,000 BCE.
Indeed, some of their early mythology is preserved in sub-Saharan Africa and along the path of migration: in the Andaman Islands, Melanesia, and Australia. Laurasian mythology developed somewhere along the emigration path, probably in southwest Asia around 40,000 BCE.
Further, a comparison of both the Laurasian and Gondwana mythologies allows distinguishing some common features shared by all mythologies (of the globe, ‘Pan-Gaia’). They are likely to have been included amongst the myths told by the communities of the African Eve. Therefore, they represent the earliest testimony available of the spiritual world of our ultimate ancestors, something that cannot be accessed in any detail by the other sciences mentioned.
Finally, a brief look is taken at the historical developments from early, Pan-Gaean myths to the classical ones of Eurasian and Amerindian antiquity, and further down to more recent and present ones. As a result, key features of Laurasian myth are observed as underlying the current myths of all major religions and many of their ideological offshoots.
This realization informs us about many of our current beliefs and their underlying and enduring mythological foundations. Current social and political developments around the globe necessitate a better, in depth understanding of the archaic basis for many of our dearly-held beliefs.
The first two chapters of the book deal with the description and definition of myth and, briefly, with the history of the study of myths. Myth is defined as a highly regarded, standardized and ‘true’ narrative that tells of cosmology, past and present society, and of the human condition; frequently, it is used to explain and justify past and current social circumstances.
Comparison of myths have been made for many centuries and similarities found between them are now habitually explained by diffusion or by common human psychic traits (archetypes). Diffusion entails the spread of a myth or cluster of myths from a known or unknown point of origin. The spread may eventually reach the ends of the world, such as Tierra del Fuego and Lapland. This approach has been propagated scholars such as by L. Frobenius and H. Baumann. However, the Laurasian theory supersedes such incidental (repeated) transmissions as it requires that a whole system of myths, along with its narrative structure, would have been spread by incidental diffusions. Instead, Laurasian mythology has been spread by the constant migratory advance of humans after the past few Ice Ages (c. 40,000 and 10,000 BCE)
More fashionable today is the theory of common and shared humans psychic traits, the archetypes, first conceived by A. Bastian (Völkergedanken) and formulated by C.G. Jung. Archetypes are those psychic contents that have not yet been submitted to conscious elaboration. Myth is the secondary elaboration of archetypes. Their images are embedded in a comprehensive system of thought that ascribes an order to the world. Common archetypes include the (great) Mother, the Father, the Hero, the Miraculous Child, the Wise woman, the Shadow. Since they are generally human, they can turn up everywhere and anytime in dreams, visions and myths. Laurasian mythology would then be one of several such elaborations using a powerful structuring device, the story line. However, if the explanation of myth by Jungian archetypes were correct, we would expect (most) individual archetypes turning up in all parts of the globe. This, however, is not the case, as will be seen below (§ 3). In addition, the actual formulation of myths and complete myth systems, such as the Laurasian one, are located on a higher plane than that of the archetypes, superseding them by several levels.
Against this background, the proposal of Laurasian Mythology is launched and other explanations of myth are compared, starting with those of the ancient Greeks, Chinese and Indians, leading up to Vico and Lévi-Strauss.
§ 2 Comparison and Theory
In this chapter, the general and theoretical background of comparisons, as practiced in the sciences and in the humanities, is explored, drawing on recent work by scholars such as C. Ragin and others. Subsequently, the various theories underlying and the methods used in the comparison of myths are spelled out.
An initial general survey deals with the question of the comparability of any two items and the process of their comparison. Ultimately, the procedure is derived from, and heavily dependent on the structure of the human mind that frequently favors binary combinations (Lévi-Strauss) and analogies based on experience and the anthropomorphization of nature.
Then, the characteristics of the proposed scheme of Laurasian mythology, and of various mythologies in general, are discussed at length. It is shown how the Laurasian scheme can be built up, step by step, by observing a large number of similarities between mythologies worldwide, while focusing on their regular correspondences across time and space. The comparison is crucially enhanced by the discovery of a fixed structure underlying most mythologies in Eurasia and the Americas: the narrative scheme of Laurasian mythology, that is the story line from the original creation to the end of the world (see below).
The ensuing discussion argues in detail how to proceed with the reconstruction. The necessity is stressed to use the oldest available texts, as to avoid contamination by later developments. The reconstruction proceeds further back in time, from the earliest available accounts (such as the Egyptian or Sumerian ones) to various levels of reconstructed levels of mythology (such as the Near Eastern, Eurasian or Amerindian ones), and ultimately to the Laurasian stage. The various mythologies studied will gradually appear to be branches of a complicated family tree of mythologies.
In addition to the earliest texts, geographically widely dispersed items (even of the modern period) must be compared: their scattered occurrence and frequently, their isolated survival, is a positive sign of preceding older and archaic levels.
Another comparative method employed is that of internal reconstruction. This makes use of the information available for just one historical stage and region, say, old Japanese myth. Based on the various strands and archaisms found in this material, the preceding East Asian archipelagic stage is reconstructed. This, in turn, can then be compared with other (reconstructed) mythologies belonging to the northeast Asian mainland. Needless to say, reconstruction may miss some elements that were present in the earlier (continental) stage but were lost in the later (Japanese) one.
Once such levels have been established, the actual reconstruction of the Laurasian story line can proceed. The reconstructed form of the original Laurasian mythology can (and must) then be compared ‘downstream’ with the various locally attested mythologies, from ancient Egypt to the Mayas. Such comparisons may serve as a convenient check on the validity of the Laurasian reconstruction, but they also highlight how many levels of changes have intervened between the Laurasian stage and the local stage.
Some such changes are the ‘natural’ developments derived by local thinkers from the materials available to a given population; frequently, the changes derive from the inherent contradictions present in inherited materials. Other changes and additions stand out as they depart from the standard narrative; they clearly indicate what kind of material has been inserted into the Laurasian scheme and when this has happened. A purely synchronic comparison of myths cannot achieve this kind of historical dimension. Historical comparison adds several layers of evidence and strength to the Laurasian proposal.
Systematic investigations of the type described above reveal that certain insertions and changes have occurred in several regionally important centers that, in turn, have secondarily influenced neighboring local mythologies. Examples include the Egyptian one (influencing northeast Africa and beyond), the Ancient Near Eastern one (Anatolia and Greece), the western Central Asian one (Indo-European, Altaic speakers, and oldest Japanese mythology), the Meso-American one (Mexico, the southwestern USA, and beyond). These intermediate stages have to be taken into account when dealing with individual local mythologies.
The original Laurasian mythological system is derived from all the various forms of reconstructions and is carried out ‘up and down’ the branches of the family tree of relationships, or more technically, the cladistic arrangement. Common to all branches of Laurasian mythologies and to their original parent is the Laurasian story line from creation to dissolution of the world. It is dominated by creation myths that tell how the world and human beings originated. This begins with primordial emergence, and leads, via four generations of deities to early semi-divine heroes, and to the origin of humans. The establishment of a sustained biosphere (oikumene) and human culture follows, as well as the later stages of human history, the origin of local ‘noble’ (subsequently, “royal”) lineages. Frequently, a violent end to our present world is envisaged, sometimes with the hope for a new world rising from its remains. The most prominent individual topics include these 15 items.
1 primordial waters / darkness/ chaos / ‘nonbeing’
2 primordial egg / giant
3 primordial hill or island (floating earth)
4 Father Heaven/Mother Earth and their children (four
generations / ages)
5 heaven is pushed up
6 incest of heaven and his daughter; the hidden sun light
7 the current gods defeat or kill their predecessors,
8 the killing of the dragon (and use of heavenly drink)
9 the Sun deity as the father of humans (later on, of chieftains); their rituals
9 first humans and their first evil deeds / origin of death / the flood
11 heroes and nymphs
12 bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero (including shamans, rituals)
13 spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins
14 final destruction of humans, the world, the gods
(as a variant of the Four Ages theme)
15 new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss
§ 3 Creation Myths : The Laurasian story line, our first novel
Chapter 3 constitutes the core of the book: a large number of creation myths are compared across Laurasia in the order of the story line. In each case, say the creation of the world from water, all relevant data are adduced, discussed and compared. Relevant materials, if any, from non-Laurasian mythologies are mentioned and referred to a later discussion (§ 5, the countercheck)
The diverse details cannot be gone into here, however, it may be pointed out that Laurasian mythology knows of a number of actual ‘creations’ or myths of emergence of the world, from chaos, water, or with the help of an earth diver, of a primordial floating earth; further, creation by the cutting up of a primordial giant, bull or egg. There also are some versions that combine several such mythemes. Some of them follow a ‘logical’ order, while others stand apart as alternative myths of origins. The solution to the enigma of the co-existence of these divergent myths will only be discovered when non-Laurasian myths are compared (§ 5).
Initial creation is followed by the first bi-sexual beings, usually Father Heaven and Mother Earth who give birth to the subsequent generations of deities. These are frequently arranged in a set of four or five generations (or “ages”, in the Americas: “suns”). The inserted heroic stage takes care of the ambiguous position of the generation of semi-divine heroes (e.g., both in Greek or Maya myth). After giving birth to the next generation, Heaven and Earth must be separated, usually by stemming up Heaven. In this, providing a perfect example of widely separated mythemes, Maori Polynesian and Indo-European myths still overlap to a large degree, which is surprising, given the great distance in time and space that separates both myth complexes. The prop used to stem up Heaven also appears as (an offering) pole, world tree, a world mountain or as the giant Atlas.
Once heaven and earth are separated, the earth can be prepared for the human oikumene, usually by a primordial demiurge or trickster. This includes stabilizing the earth, the creation of light (or its release from an underground cave) and the slaying of the dragon who encompasses the (sweet) water. This heroic deed found in many versions all over Laurasia. In many traditions, the theft of fire and of the heavenly drink follows. Only after this, the earth is ready for the emergence of humans.
In many ancient Laurasian traditions (such as India, China, Japan, Maya, etc.) humans are the descendants of the Sun deity, while in others the gradually emerging Neolithic nobilities have reserved this lineage for themselves (Egypt, Polynesia, etc.), and regular humans are then sometimes created from clay or have no afterlife. In later, post-Neolithic versions of Laurasian mythology, more is found about the emergence of local nobilities (and ‘kings’) and about their lineages. At this stage, more details of human culture, including rituals and the shaman-like performers are introduced as well. The change from myth to (legendary) local history usually occurs at this stage.
However, with the first humans, evil and death enter into the world. The evil and the hubris of humans is taken care of in different ways. Often, a great, all-devastating flood (Greece, Mesopotamia, Bible, Vedic India, Meso-America) is connected with the origin and spread of evil among early humans and with their hubris. Though the world and humans are restored after the primordial flood, we find the final destruction of the world and even of the gods (as a variant of the Four Ages theme) at the end of human history. A new heaven and a new earth or eternal bliss are promised in some mythologies.
All preceding myths and motifs are discussed at some length in this chapter, drawing on examples from all areas and periods of Laurasian mythology. They sustain the initial reconstruction and the Laurasian story line. Doubtful cases and apparent exceptions are indicated and are discussed in detail in § 5. Some of them indicate remnants of earlier, pre-Laurasian stages (such as the motif of the primordial giant), others are due to the development of human society and religion since the Neolithic (such as the descent of nobles and kings from the Sun deity).
Though the reconstruction of Laurasian mythology stands on its own feet, it can be sustained by evidence from other fields of the humanities and the natural sciences.
The first set of evidence comes, unsurprisingly, from the field of linguistics. Since mythology is based on texts, the languages in which it has been transmitted must be of interest.
Certain ancient and modern languages can be grouped into families as they share ancient common features in grammar and sounds. Through innovations in certain branches of a given family these have evolved over time, and such changes lead to a ‘cladistic’ family tree, as seen in human families, manuscripts (stemma), plant and animal lineages reconstructed by paleontology or, more prominently nowadays, by genetics.
The most well-known families are the Indo-European one, covering most languages between Iceland and Bengal, and the Semitic one, a part of the Afro-Asiatic family that covers most of Northern and Eastern Africa as well as the (ancient) Near East. Others include the Austronesian family (Madagascar to Hawaii), or the Bantu one (most of sub-Saharan Africa). The origin of such families can be dated back several thousand years.
Some linguists have proceeded to link up the reconstructed families and have established super-families, such as the Nostratic one that covers almost all of Europe, northern Africa, southwestern, south, central, north and northeastern Asia. A tentative date is set around 12,000 BCE. Some more daring linguists want to establish even earlier superfamilies, such as the Amerind one, controversially reconstructed by Joseph Greenberg for most of the Americas. Some even maintain to have reconstructed some words spoken by the African Eve (see below).
Be that as it may, the comparison of superfamilies provides a useful background scenario that overlaps with several branches of Laurasian mythology. The Laurasian scenario includes the early speakers of the Nostratic, Amerind, Macro-Caucasian, Austroasiatic, etc. linguistic families.
Some of the superfamilies overlap with the regional centers, established for post-Laurasian mythologies (such as the Nostratic linguistic family with the early Neolithic hunter cultures of Eurasia or the Amerind one with the hunter cultures of the Americas). Linguistics can also help in distinguishing between Laurasian features typical for a particular local mythology, a regional one, or that of a wider area. Just as certain isolated remnants seen in comparative linguistics derive from more ancient systems, so do Laurasian motifs that have been transmitted only in some individual languages or language families. When they do not make sense in isolation, we have to reckon with archaisms. Some items match, some transgress language families, which is a good indicator for cultural transfer, such as the one between the western Central Asian steppe cultures and early Japan.
4.2. Physical anthropology
The nature and shape of the human body (shape of the skull, hair, eyes, skin color) has been used in the past to classify humans into several ‘races.’ This idea has long been discarded as it is impossible to arrive at secure parameters for a classification of any one ‘race.’ Humans usual share most traits that have been used for such attempted classifications, and any one of them can change fairly quickly due to environmental factors. Still, certain items, such as tooth shape, are useful to distinguish certain human types seen in the history of a population (Sinodont versus Sundadont teeth). Further, some broadly based multivariate analyses can provide some general indications. While they may be too general when used as stand-alone data, they can be useful in comparison with other data (such as genetics or archaeology). Some of these macro-factors can be used and compared with those of the populations that have transmitted certain (sub-)sections of Laurasian mythology.
More promising are the recent advances in genetics, especially in male Y chromosome and female mtDNA studies. Their results closely agree with the Laurasian Scheme (§ 3). In other words, human population genetics can even serve as a (historical) template for Laurasian mythology.
It has been well known for the past 15 years or so that anatomically modern humans can be traced back to a single woman in Africa who lived more than 100,000 years ago. We all share her mtDNA, while that of her sisters and other female relatives has not survived. The African derivative versions of her mtDNA are still preserved in two major versions (haplogroups L1 and L2) in Africa, while all other humans descend from an East African subgroup, L3. Their ancestors have left Africa around 65,000 BCE, moving eastwards along the shore of the Indian Ocean, until they reached Australia and Southern China, within a few thousand years. The number of the original emigrants has been estimated at 10,000, and more recently even as low as 2,000 people.
It is obvious that they must have brought with them some version(s) of an original African language and mythology. However, Laurasian mythology is not identical with that exported from Africa. Instead, it is restricted to groups that do not include those speaking Australian, Melanesian (Papua, etc.), and Andamanese languages. In fact, the DNA of the Sahul Land people (New Guinea and Australia) differs markedly from the rest of Eurasia that was settled by people of other haplogroups.
Clearly, in these early periods --the immigration to Australia is set a 40-60,000 years ago-- genes, languages and mythologies still could travel together, given the small number of people then living. This scenario has been much more unlikely, if not nearly impossible in more recent times, due to frequent remixing of genes (as well as myths and certain traits of languages).
Indeed, as shown in § 3, Laurasian mythology is restricted to Eurasian and American populations that speak Nostratic, Austronesian, Amerindian, etc. languages, while their DNA is restricted to populations that predominantly have the subclasses (haplogroups) of mtDNA M, N, etc. and NRY C, F etc.
To further differentiate within these subcategories we need more intensive genetic as well as mythological work that must rely on the broad patterns plotted above (§§ 2, 3). It can only be established by investigation the mythologies of individual populations (say, the Dayaks of Borneo) and by a comparison of their DNA (with that of the other Indonesian peoples).
At this stage, it is sufficient to note that the populations that have transmitted Laurasian mythologies belong to the ex-Africa language families and genetic subclades mentioned above.
Another type of human data and remains, those uncovered by archaeology, tells a similar story. Early human remains and tools can be traced even before Homo erectus, but it is anatomically modern humans (Homo Sapiens sapiens) whose spread inside and outside Africa can be followed by a trail of tools and some skeletal remains.
As the genetic evidence and the Laurasian theory predict, the earliest remains of Homo Sapiens sap. are found inside Africa (Homo Sapiens Idaltu, etc.), while only a few early artifacts and skeletons have been retrieved along the exodus path. They are found inland (Narmada corridor in India, etc.) from the ancient coast lines of the Indian ocean, as the sea level was some 200 m lower around c. 60,000 BCE. Most important sites that could indicate the spread to Australia and S. China are now covered by water. Nevertheless, early Australian sites (40,000-60,000 BCE) prove the quick spread of humans out of Africa. Similarly, increasingly modern Stone Age implements have been found in the same areas, indicating the spread of these early humans.
A very important indicator of anatomically modern humans is the appearance of symbolical thinking, which is required for the creation of myths. While even the Neanderthals had some grave goods indicating a belief in afterlife, it is the sudden emergence of Stone Age art, especially cave paintings, that point to symbolic thinking. Differently from former assumptions, this art did not emerge from southwestern Europe (Lascaux, etc.). Instead, it is found almost simultaneously in Africa, India and Australia.
It is important to understand some of the symbolic meanings the artists had in mind, especially the use of such paintings in hunting magic, for example in the case of the ‘sorcerer’ of Trois FrŹres in southern France at c. 14-16,000 BCE, who seems to be an early version of a shaman (see below, § 7).
This sudden explosion of complex art seems to coincide, but does not entirely overlap geographically, with the emergence of Laurasian mythology, that probably evolved somewhere in southwest Asia. (There has been some discussion of isolated pieces of earlier Paleolithic art, such as beads found in Algeria, around 90,000 BCE). Judging from actual early rock art, Paleolithic hunting techniques and the accompanying belief systems seem widespread.
However, it is the role of the shamans that is important for the Laurasian system. They must have been, as some paintings at Lascaux and Trois FrŹres (France) seem to indicate, the facilitators of a spiritual connection with the animals and probably with the Lord/Lady of the animals. As such, the shamans must have played an important role in the formulation and preservation of Laurasian mythology (§ 5; more details on Shamans below, § 7).
Unfortunately, we do not have access to much of the spiritual world of the Paleolithic and early Mesolithic people, except for what can be seen in their art and in the reconstruction of Laurasian mythology. Nevertheless, whatever can be gathered from these restricted pictorial materials does not contradict but support the worldview envisaged by Laurasian Mythology. Even then, these data encompass just a certain fraction of the reconstructable mythological materials, mostly those related to hunting, the life and rebirth of hunted animals, the role of the shaman, etc.
The early, Palaeolithic form of Laurasian mythology has undergone several stages of developments (§ 7), while the people adhering to it spread inland from the shores of the Indian Ocean and dispersed all across Eurasia, resulting in the regional mythological and language groups and further DNA branches.
At the same time, techniques, tools, and hunting also developed and are attested in archaeology, for example the invention the spear thrower, bow and arrow, etc. The spiritual world developed as well, as can be noticed in the development of shamanism (§ 7). From its original African (represented by Bushmen) and Australian form it changed to the typical and prominent North Asian shape, which includes the offering of animals, attested in archaeology (§ 7).
Offering of animals plays a great role in all later forms of religions. It seems to have developed from an early connection with hunting magic, and can be observed to develop both in Laurasian and Gondwana cultures (New Guinea, Africa). There were further changes with the onset of Neolithic food production around 10,000 BCE. The sacrifice of hunted animals (for example, the bear with the Ainu) was substituted by that of domesticated ones. However, the ancient pattern was perpetuated: it continued with early food producing and pastoralist tribes, early state societies, and it still does so in modern religions, albeit in a hidden form (the sacrifice of the lamb, i.e. Christ).
In sum, the results of archeological study overlap, just as those of linguistics and genetics, with the reconstruction of large sections of Laurasian mythology.
4.5 Some other items of comparison
In the margin, some other features of human cultural productions are discussed that can point to early regional features as subsets of Laurasian and Gondwana mythology. Examples include the conservative, simple music and the traditional games of children, some forms of ancient and modern regional styles of music (such as the pentatonic one with Amerindians, E. Asians, etc.), patterns of color use, or regional types of gestures.
§ 5 The countercheck: sub-Saharan Africa, Papua, Australia
All scientific theories must be tested. The present reconstruction of Laurasian mythology, too, can and must be subjected to the test. There are several requirements for a possible countercheck.
1. It must be shown that the present reconstruction is typical just for Laurasian mythology and that it does not have close correspondences in other (types of) mythologies. The investigations carried out in previous chapters shows that there are several other types of mythologies, notably those of sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea and Melanesia, as well as Australia. They indeed differ substantially from Laurasian mythology and also from each other.
First, they lack the Laurasian types of creation myths. Instead, the earth and the universe are supposed to pre-exist. Their main interest is in the creation of humans and their culture, which is often carried out by a deus otiosus who subsequently withdraws back into the sky.
Second, and more importantly, the typical Laurasian story line is also absent. This is a critical point: it would constitute crucial counterevidence if a test could indicate that the non-Laurasian mythologies do in fact possess the same, or a very similar, type of story line. So far, this could not be shown, neither by the present author nor by others. In sum, the Laurasian theory stands.
If, conversely, some individual motifs or developments of Laurasian mythology should however be observed in various non-Laurasian mythologies, this does not serve for a refutation of the theory, as individual motifs and (small) myth cycles can drift and travel.
2. Apart from the feature of drift, certain motifs that widely appear in Laurasian and non-Laurasian mythologies may belong to an older stratum of pre-Laurasian (and pre-Gondwana) mythology. In other words, they are isolated relicts that have accidentally been retained in both Laurasian and non-Laurasian mythologies. (This is especially the case with some of the creation myths: humans emerging from trees, from clay, etc.). Conversely, certain motifs have spread widely after the creation of Laurasian Mythology. They include the ‘classical’ Siberian form of Shamanism, descent of nobles and kings from the Sun deity, many motifs in the missionary religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
3. In sum, as long as it can be shown that the reconstructed story line is typical for Laurasian myth (and that its major creation myths are lacking in non-Laurasian myths) the theory will stand.
Beyond Laurasia: Gondwana mythology
In the second half of this chapter, the non-Laurasian (Gondwana) mythologies are explored in some detail. Starting with the most isolated ones, those of Australia and Tasmania, the investigation proceeds with those of Melanesia, including Papua, the Solomon Islands, etc.; further, those of the isolated Andaman Islands in the eastern Indian Ocean; finally, those of sub-Saharan Africa.
All these regions have some of their own problems. A few of them are rather limited, such as a certain amount of Papua influence on northwest and northeast Australian mythology, while the Southeast (and Tasmania) are more isolated and archaic.
Similarly, the Melanesian mythologies have been isolated for many thousands of years (especially those on the New Guinea highlands, in the Salomons and beyond). However, on their fringes, the Polynesian version of Laurasian mythology has exerted some influence. The juxtaposition of such Laurasian-influenced mythologies with typical Melanesian ones clearly indicates the differences between the two types.
The Andaman Islands, too, have been isolated for long spells of time. Though there may have been a passing period around 3000 BCE of continental influences (Laurasian myth transmitted by Austro-Asiatic speaking groups). Andaman mythology has reverted to typical non-Laurasian themes and survives in some islands until today; some tribes have never been contacted even now.
Africa, however, poses special problems. The sub-Saharan part of the continent has not been as isolated as some of the Gondwana areas discussed above. Anthropologists have pointed out for a long time that the various cultures of West Africa, from Guinea to Cameroon, have undergone varying degrees of influences from the Sahel steppe belt in the north. One can therefore expect, and will indeed find, numerous cases of impact by the Laurasian mythologies of the Sahel cultures. However, just as in the Melanesian case, the juxtaposition of ‘typical’ (original?) African mythologies with those influenced from the north is very instructive.
The situation is quite similar for the extended East African belt, stretching from Kenya southwards to Zimbabwe, the eastern parts of South Africa and to Namibia. This corridor was facilitated by a savannah-like landscape. Along this eastern N-S. highway, too, northern mythologies have heavily influenced the sub-Saharan ones.
In all the cases mentioned so far, the Laurasian traits have to be carefully ‘subtracted’ from what we find in Gondwana myths. This can best be done by starting out from the mythology of isolated areas, such as the backwoods of Central Africa. Subsequent evaluation indicates that the four types of non-Laurasian mythologies mentioned share a certain amount of myths, notably, the lack of true creation myths and the lack of a continuous story line, but also individual motifs such as that of human origin from trees.
In conclusion some special cases are taken up: a discussion of some Gondwana elements in Laurasian myths, and, reciprocally and conversely, Laurasian elements in Gondwana myths. Finally, elements necessary for any dismissal of the Laurasian mythology are addressed that could be brought forward, based on Gondwana mythology.
Once the Laurasian scheme has been reconstructed (§ 2-3) and its counterparts in Gondwanaland have been described and analyzed (§ 5), one can proceed and look for common themes, if any, of both Laurasian and Gondwana mythologies.
In the discussion of Laurasian mythology it has appeared, from time to time, that certain motifs simply do not fit into its common story line. Typical examples are the (Neolithic) planter’s myth of a food deity (old Japan, later Vedic India) or the origin of humans from trees and clay. Once these motifs have been isolated and ordered, a certain number of common tales emerge that include the actions of a deus otiosus who sends a trickster figure (his son, etc.) [down to earth] to create humans and culture. Frequently, the humans then misbehave in one way or another, and their hubris brings them down, or it creates various types of problems for them. Often, the flood is inserted at this moment, and a second creation/emergence allows humans to spread again. The rest of such common motifs concerns individual tales dealing with the establishment of culture. They include common Pan-human (‘Pan-Gaean’) motifs such as the flood myth, or a trickster figure that brings human culture.
This series of common tales is not ordered by the consistent Laurasian story line, and importantly, they miss the Laurasian beginning of the world (creation of the Universe and the earth) and its eventual destruction. Nevertheless, viewed against the background of the Laurasian and Gondwana mythologies, this loose group of common tales emerges as the oldest ones that can be isolated among all of the world’s mythologies. They are likely to have been those of the African Eve.
The preceding investigation into global mythologies indicates that Laurasian mythology constitutes our first well-constructed ‘novel’ and the Pan-Gaean myths are our very first tales. As such, they allow us a glimpse of the mind of early humans, before 60,000 BCE, perhaps as far back as 130,000 BCE.
Having traced back our mythological traditions all the way back to the African Eve, that is, to the earliest stages of anatomically modern humans (Homo Sapiens sap.), we can now proceed to do the reverse, and take a closer look at the subsequent developments of mythological tales, and at the various systems of mythology that were developed in Palaeolithic times. The very first stages of the development of mythology necessarily remain very vague, as we can judge them only according to reconstructions of the daughter mythologies, that are, themselves, reconstruction based on much later texts.
Nevertheless, it may be suggested that the period down from c. 130,000 to c. 65,000 BCE saw the emergence and development of Pan-Gaean myths that were perhaps already divided into several local forms within Africa. Future research may shed some light on this stage. The developments become clearer once a sub-set of Africans had left the continent: in other words, the innovations brought about by that emigrant group, in myths as well as in languages, and genes, stand out against the features remaining with populations in Africa (that did not remain static either, obviously). The universal principle of shared innovations, seen in language, archaeology, genetics, paleontology and biology in general, is at work here. Such innovations can be contrasted with those of the (frequently) more conservative groups remaining behind.
In the present case, the mythologies of the original Out of Africa groups were to a large extent retained in the Andamans, Melanesia and Australia, but they are also seen in small refuge areas elsewhere (Vedda, Nilgiri, Semang, Aeta). They clearly represent several slightly aberrant, in other words, innovative versions of the original African (Pan-Gaean) myths (as dealt with in § 5-6).
Taking a closer look at the common features of Pan-Gaean myths, the one item that stands out is the importance of Palaeolithic Shamanism in the early male dominated segment of hunter cultures that supported the widely spread Palaeolithic bands of humans. However, little if nothing of the tales of their women remains, though they must have used teghe same language for communication on vital topics such as sources of food, as a social bond, and for the equally important social commentary (gossiping). One indication that some of their stories may have been retained even in they male-dominated hunters and Shamans’ tales of Laurasian mythology are aberrant myths such as human origins from trees. We thus have to distinguish (grand)father’s tales from (grand)mother’s tales.
Shamanism has been under continuous and controversial discussion, especially since Eliade. However, his discussion of African and Australian shamanism is inadequate, while his version of the ‘typical’ North Asian (Siberian) version has been reconfirmed by many scholars, including the fact that it has to be distinguished from mere possession. Campbell’s characterization of the Shamanism of the South African Khoi San (Bushmen, and of their relatives, the Hadza/Sandawe in N. Tanzania) as well as that of the aboriginal Australians as ‘deteriorated’ is misleading. Instead, the Khoi-San, the Andamanese and the Australians have preserved a prototype of what later became Siberian and Amerindian shamanism. This development constitutes a close parallel of the development of Laurasian mythology from Gondwana mythology. For example, the earlier, Pan-Gaean and Gondwana versions do not yet possess the characteristic feature of shamanistic drumming, but they do share the unique perception of some difficultly controlled heat that rises upwards from the lower end of the spine -- a feature still retained in some forms of Indian Yoga.
Against this early background, the vestiges of Palaeolithic and Neolithic Shamanism and sacrifice may be explored. Some shamanic mythemes appear universally in Pan-Gaean, Gondwana and Laurasian myths, such as the ascent of the shaman to heaven, his rebirth during initiation, and that of the (parallel) rebirth of animals killed in hunting, etc. However, there also is the important physical evidence found in early rock art in Africa, India, and Australia that underlines the significance of these features for Palaeolithic hunting cultures.
In addition, some of the late Palaeolithic/early Neolithic paintings seem to indicate the actual presence of (proto-)Shamans, such as in the Trois FrŹres and Lascaux caves in S. France. The dancing figure is still without the typical flat Siberian drum, but he may be using his bow instead. However, he exhibits certain features that later on became typical for the classical Siberian shaman, such as the dress made up out of several animal skins and horns, and his connection with a wounded buffalo (pierced through the life line, at Lascaux) as well as the bird symbolism (spiritual guide/messenger) also fall into this category.
These Palaeolithic paintings are indicative of the existence of early hunting-oriented shamanism. New paintings are constantly found in Africa, India and the Americas, while Southeast Asia and most of New Guinea are largely unexplored.
The ramifications of this practice are of immediate and significant importance for Eurasian mythology. The teachings, after the secretive initiation, by one or more experienced shamans, involves the transmission of oral tales, beliefs and practices that are typical for the local form of Shamanism. In Laurasian myths, these teachings and their content are highly formalized and are based on the effectiveness of sacred speech (that is archaic, like many hunter’s languages). They have served as the main conduit of the preservation of ancient myths and have ensured a large degree of stability for them. In that sense, too, Laurasian mythology constitutes our ‘(grand)father’s tales’.
Such formalized transmission also favored the emergence of the very structure of Laurasian mythology. It is, like all oral texts, organized according to a certain pattern (in which it is more easily learned by heart). Such patterns include the Polynesian one configured according to the bones of a fish or medieval memory palaces. In the Laurasian case, it is the simple structure from creation to destruction of the world, from birth to death. In other words, not only does the ‘life story’ of the universe parallel that of humans, but also that of killed animals, along with their expected rebirth (if their bones were preserved intact).
To put in unambiguous terms: Laurasian mythology is the outcome of shamans’ hunter ideology and of their teachings, transmitted to their disciples. It is based on the life cycle of their prey and is structured accordingly: animals are killed and reborn from their bones (an idea a still retained for humans in Christianity). By analogy, this process parallels the fate of humans and of the world at large.
Another outcome of this Palaeolithic setting is the institution of sacrifice. While actual sacrifice is not visible in Palaeolithic rock art, hunting certainly is. The shamanistic painting at Trois FrŹres in S. France combines hunting with Shamanism. In later (Siberian) Shamanism, sacrifice (of dogs, etc,) is well attested. Other relict forms of ‘Siberian’ sacrifice include that of bears (with the Saami in N. Finland, Ainu in N. Japan, etc.). In each culture, the sacrifice of a locally prominent animal is expected. Thus, in the Andamans we cannot expect that of buffaloes but the early Andamanese certainly did once have that of boars (probably under Austroasiatic influence), which is archeologically attested. However, the practice of actual shamanistic sacrifice is still absent in Khoi-san Africa and in Australia .
Clearly, sacrifice stands in for the original hunt, the pursuit and killing of a major prey (cf. W. Burkert). In other words, sacrifice is a ritualized relict of the magical practices of Stone Age hunters, looking for the endless supply of hunted, killed (and reborn) animals.
In Neolithic and in State societies the connection with hunting has been transformed into the general practice of sacrifice that still looks for very much the same results: food supply, stable society, etc. However, this was set in terms more appropriate to the period: those of leadership/kingship, priesthood, food production, domesticated animals, stable (class based) society, etc. The same pattern is still observed with us, though obviously in transubstantiated form, at Sunday Mass, with the hunted animal substituted by ‘the lamb’, Christ. Similarly, many other cultures have moved away from actual killing to substitutions by plants and execution of ritual just in one’s mind such as in certain aspects of Hinduism, while even the ‘non-violent’ Hindus still apply red color to their forehead at the end of each of their rituals.
Such processes have lead from Palaeolithic hunters’ societies to Neolithic food producing ones and then to city state and to nation state societies, --- changes that were always accompanied with appropriate changes in mythology (cf. § 8).
Dating Gondwana and Laurasian mythology
Based on the preceding deliberations, certain anchor points for dating Laurasian mythology can be determined. The exodus from Africa, seen in archaeology and genetics, as well as the recognition of basic differences between Laurasian and Non-Laurasian (Gondwana) mythologies allows to set a date post quem for Laurasian mythology at c. 65,000 BCE. The lowest date ante quem is that of the immigration of Amerindians into the Americas shortly after c. 20,000 BCE. Further substantiation of these dates comes from the fact that Australian mythology must have entered the continent around 40,000 BCE at the latest. The populations that brought this type of Gondwana mythology with them had not yet been affected by Laurasian myth. However, they could just have been an isolated group in Sunda Land (western Indonesia) that had retained, along with the Andamanese and Melanesians, older versions of mythology that may have been in ascendance elsewhere in Asia. A terminus ad quem of c. 40,000 BCE for Laurasian mythology is therefore not excluded by the Australian dates (which, anyhow, may be substantially earlier, 60,000 BCE, according to some archeologists).
Greater clarity could be achieved if some of the early rock art could be linked with Laurasian myths. However, as discussed above (§ 7), this is possible only in a few cases, such as certain with some paintings in France that clearly are later than 40,000 BCE. around 40,000 BCE, as Homo Sapiens sap. spread, along with Laurasian mythology, from there into Europe by c. 40-35,000 BCE. At the same time, after the end of a previous glacial period, it also spread northwards into western Central Asia. However, the way it has reached Eastern Central Asia and Northern China is still unclear. Language, myth and genes must not always travel together. Laurasian myth may have been transmitted into northern China by central/north Asian hunters (who also carried the Nostratic language or rather its Borean/Dene-Caucasian predecessor, that includes according to some linguists, the ancestor of Chinese), while Southern China had been occupied since c. 60,000 BCE by populations belonging to the first wave of people having arrived with the exodus along the shores of the Indian Ocean and Sunda Land. To reach a decision, In sum, at this moment, we have to be content with stating that Laurasian mythology developed—somewhere in southwestern Asia—sometime between 60,000 and 20,000 BCE. The most likely date is centered
first of all, the genetic history of the populations of Southeast Asia must be further clarified. More importantly, the early mythologies are retained to some extent by small remnant populations (Semang, Aeta, etc.); otherwise, they have been overlaid by Buddhist, Christian and Islamic beliefs, but still exist under that veneer. Such investigations will result in a clearer picture of post-60,000 BCE developments in southeastern and southern East Asia. In sum, it can be concluded than Laurasian mythology should be dated as follows (lowest dates):
Š post quem 60,000 BCE (‘Gondwana’ Exodus Out of Africa)
Š post /ad quem 60-40,000 BCE (‘Gondwana’ immigration into Sahul Land)
Š ad quem 40,000 BCE (‘Laurasian’ immigration into Europe)
Š ante quem: 20,000 BCE (‘Laurasian’ immigration into the Americas)
A date around 40,000 BCE is probable for an area that covers Greater Southwest Asia. It coincides with, but is not caused by nor is entirely overlapping with the world-wide spread of Palaeolithic rock art (§ 7). If the emergence of rock art was indeed a major step in the development of the symbolic functions in the human brain – albeit that there seem to be some indications in northwest (and South) Africa of incipient primitive art around 90,000 BCE, and even earlier -- it nevertheless is clear that a new wave of symbolic and artistic expression spread, along with Palaeolithic hunter’s practices, from an unknown center in equal fashion across all of Africa and Asia, irrespective of the mythologies professed. Further studies in archaeology and genetics will shed some light both on the exact source and the spread; at this moment, the data are too sparse to allow further conclusions.
Even then, Laurasian mythology, as our first well-constructed novel-like series of tales emerges around 40,000 BCE. Subsequently it has spread all across Eurasia northern Africa, and finally the Americas. By now, the populations believing in or otherwise following one of its later versions, have pushed back Gondwana mythologies into some retreat areas of sub-Saharan Africa, the Andamans, New Guinea and Australia. It is difficult to establish concrete numbers, but a rough estimate of the remnants of Gondwana mythologies confines them to less than 5% of present day humans, mainly those in sub-Saharan Africa. Their number is still shrinking due to the advance of Laurasian-derived religions. Therefore it is an urgent task study and preserve whatever is left of the various Gondwana mythologies, as they are an important part of our common heritage.
§ 8 OUTLOOK
The Meaning of Laurasian Mythology
In the light of the previous discussions, it appears that the very structure applied to the various Laurasian myths, that is its story line, provides a potential angle for its interpretation. As has been stressed, the story line extends from the birth of the world, via several stages, to the full development with humans and their culture, and to its final decay and death, with the hope for an eventual rebirth. Obviously, this view is taken from the Stone Age experience of humans, observing the life cycles of their fellow humans, the hunted animals, and the cycles of nature itself. In other words, the world, its beings and deities are interpreted, in typical human fashion, by analogy in the light of human experience; this is anthropologization, a feature that is still applied today not only by small children but also by adults.
Laurasian mythology was successful as it put essential questions and answered then in a satisfactory way. It asked the eternal questions “ Where do we come from?” “Why are we here?” “Where do we go?” and answered them by stating that we are descendents of the gods, who on their part have evolved from earlier generations and ultimately from the universe itself, whose ultimate origin is prominently debated in Laurasian myths.
And, the end is a hopeful one. Just as the hunted animals are reborn, if their bones are kept intact after slaughtering, so do humans find rebirth in the fold of the gods or in a new life on earth, and so does the Universe.
In sum, the questions of Stone Age humans about the constantly revolving life cycles of animals and humans as well as of nature are answered in a satisfactory fashion by ‘identifying’ these realms, by correlating human experience to the one of the anthropomorphicized world and its animals. Humans thus are part and parcel of a grand scheme that establishes links with the spirits of the deities and animals and provides access to primordial creation by inspired myth telling and connected rituals. In that way, the burning questions that have troubled humans ever since they started to reflect on themselves have been tackled and answered in a way that was satisfying to their original Laurasian Palaeolithic composers and contemporaries.
The model was so successful that, irrespective of earlier mythologies, it has since spread across all continents. Strangely, the Laurasian answer still is satisfying for the vast majority of modern humans, which clearly is in need of some discussion.
The very fact that Laurasian mythology, in its various derivative forms such as Shinto, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc., still satisfies the great majority of humans in their spiritual quest is an indication of the power of the original basic concept. The Laurasian image of birth and rebirth of the universe, of nature and of humans provides a compelling explanation and motivation for people who ask the eternal questions.
On a higher level of abstraction, the persistence of myth also tells us that humans apparently cannot live without it; they are hard-wired for it. Thus, even where religion and myths have officially been abandoned, such as in socialist or communist countries, myths have reared their head in other forms. Examples include the former Stalinist and current N. Korean myths about their leaders and public rituals. Similarly, as Cassirer (1946) has explained, the extensive use made by the Nazis of (old Germanic) mythology and revived or invented rituals that were in part intended as a counterweight against prevailing Christian religion. Mythology (and accompanying rituals) have prevailed in the socialist countries in spite of a theoretical abolishment of religion and replacement with ‘scientific’ historical materialism. The current revival of religion and new cults in these countries clearly demonstrates the power of the underlying attraction of spiritual interest and desires. The same can be observed for semi-secular myths of various nations, such as the all-American myths of ‘god’s own country’, ‘the manifest destiny,’ or the ‘monomyth’ of the hero as ‘Lone Rider’ setting things straight (J. Campbell).
Similarly, the various reformulations that Laurasian mythology has undergone in the various prominent world religions over the past c. 2500 years still hold a potent, now increasing sway over the great majority of the current world population, regardless of the individual forms that these reformulations have taken.
In Shinto as well as in many forms of Hinduism and in many small Eurasian and Amerindian tribal religions, the old polytheistic framework has been retained. In Hinduism it has been overlaid, to some extent, by ever more syncretistic, higher levels of interpretation; yet, under the quasi-monotheistic (or henotheistic) varnish lurk all the old spirits of nature and forces of the Universe, often personified as particular deities. Shinto, however, keeps them very well apart and it listed, already about a thousand years ago, some 8000 major deities. The same applies to most tribal religions. Most have maintained the Laurasian story line from creation to destruction of the world.
The matter is not very much different with the other major world religions. The earliest monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, still practiced by some 100,000 people in S.E. Iran and in the Bombay area, is an outcome of Indo-Iranian religion, common to the old Eastern Iranians and to the early Vedic inhabitants of Northwestern India. Zoroaster and his priests (c. 1000 BCE) have moved away from two competing groups of deities and principles to the supremacy of one God who is opposed by devil-like creatures. The Laurasian story line is very prominent in Zoroastrian myths: God (Ahura Mazda) creates the world that will be destroyed at the end of time while the ones who have made the right decision for Ahura Mazda and against the ‘evil spirit’ will proceed to a world of bliss.
Similarly, Judaism has seen a gradual change from polytheistic beginnings (‘no other gods next to me’) to actual monotheism, undoubtedly under Iranian influence during the so-called Babylonian captivity. As a result, all so-called Abrahamic religions (Judaic, Christian, Islamic) have replaced the ancient multiple deities with a monotheistic framework (although one can discusses the Christian trinity). However, they have retained the Laurasian story line nevertheless: Abrahamic accounts start with the creation of the world by God (rather, Elohim ‘the gods’), and they end with the destruction of the world, holding out the hope for a ‘new world’ of paradise-like nature. (Paradise itself is an Old Iranian word, meaning the ‘walled in [garden].’
Both the Christian and the Islamic versions are now expanding in the last few remaining hold-outs of polytheistic Laurasian and Gondwana mythologies, especially in Africa, New Guinea and in the various remaining pockets of tribal religions worldwide. However, they find much more resistance in the areas dominated by Hindu, Daoist and Shinto religions as well as in some areas with new religions such as the Melanesian cargo cult. Needless to say, it will be great loss to human culture if the last non-Abrahamic pockets of religion, mythology and rituals will disappear. However, at present, the Laurasian story line is attractive for more than 90% of all living humans.
Another reason for the survival of Laurasian mythology is that humans are ‘pre-conditioned’ by their current culture and its predecessors. Cross-cultural comparison indicates that, once a certain motif has been established in a given civilization, it continues to have an enormous persistence over time. S. Farmer et al. (2000) have called this the ‘path dependency’ of cultural traits. The Laurasian story line would then be a primary example. Others examples include the motifs of karma and rebirth in India, purity versus impurity (tsumi) in Japan, ancestor worship in China and elsewhere, being ‘chosen’ (Judaism, America), or monotheism.
In view of the human predilection for myth, it is essential that we reach an understanding of the roots and the subsequent ‘path dependencies’ of our (modern) myths, especially so in an age of ‘the clash of civilizations.’
This realization must inform us about many of our current beliefs and their underlying, enduring mythological foundations. Current social and political developments around the globe necessitate a better, in depth understanding of the archaic basis for many of our dearly-held beliefs.
M.Witzel (Oct. 2006/Dec. 2012)