Who We Are 1: the beginning of culture

Modern humans first appeared in Africa around 150,000 – 180,000 years ago; one of a closely-related group of hominids that had populated the savannah over the preceding three million years. During that time, our ancestors learned how to talk, how to make fire and cook and how to cooperate in groups. We probably lived in a similar way to earlier hominids, but something extraordinary happened: we developed culture.

Toba: fire and brimstone

Between 69,000 and 75,000 years ago a gigantic super-volcano in Indonesia, today called Toba, erupted. Its consequences were felt globally. This was a cataclysmic event that would change us dramatically.

Toba was one of the biggest eruptions ever and certainly the greatest in human times. Mount St. Helens, which exploded in 1980, erupted about half a cubic kilometre of material. The biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history was at Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in today’s Indonesia, which erupted forty-one cubic kilometres in 1815, leading to the ‘year without a summer’. Krakatoa, also in Indonesia, erupted about eighteen cubic kilometres in 1883. Thera, or Santorini, which devastated the Minoans about 3500 years ago, erupted at least sixty cubic kilometres of material, with global consequences and volcanic effects which went on for years. But Toba was of a completely different scale. It erupted as much as three thousand cubic kilometres of ash and other material, making it fifty times greater even than Thera. The Earth was plunged into a six-year volcanic winter followed by a thousand-year ice age.

When a volcano erupts, it sends a column of super-heated gas miles up into the atmosphere, carrying huge amounts of ash and pumice with it. As the column rises, the energy in it dissipates and the column collapses in a searing torrent of ash called a pyroclastic flow.

For hundreds of miles around, nothing survived the initial stages of Toba’s eruption, as its flows blasted outwards, incinerating everything in their path. At first, the energy in the flow made it hurtle across the surface of the oceans, supported like a terrible hovercraft on a cushion of superheated steam. Then it plunged down under the surface, creating tsunamis that rose tens of metres into the air, radiating outwards at terrific speed and utterly devastating the coastal areas they struck. Sulphur dioxide caused highly acidic rain that withered and killed all but the most resistant plants. Thick layers of volcanic ash covered the ground, choking new growth, and the effects lasted for many human lifetimes.

The consensus amongst geneticists is that our numbers dropped to 2000 – 10,000 individuals. We had become an endangered species. Somehow, we survived and slowly began not only to recover numbers but also to expand and develop our geographical range. All the evidence that we have for the evolution of faith and belief comes from after the Toba event. We do not know if the people before it believed in deities, spirits or the supernatural. We do have evidence that by 35,000 years ago, these cultural traditions were well established.

Cults and religions

Cults and religions have several functions. In their simplest form, they represent an attempt to understand the Universe, to answer the questions ‘What am I?’ and ‘How did I get here?’ These questions are a constant in human history. They form the basis of religion, philosophy and science, each attempting to answer them in a different way. They have prompted humanity to scale the peaks of intellectual achievement. Without them, our culture would be very different and might not exist at all. We are what we are because we wonder, and our previous attempts to answer these fundamental questions have shaped us. They have informed our culture for tens of millennia and their consequences – for better or worse – cannot easily be escaped.

The articles in his category tell the story of how the first recognisably modern human culture evolved and came to dominate the Earth.

The Foragers

Fifty thousand years ago, the climate was much colder and drier. Because so much water was retained in the polar ice, sea levels were perhaps seventy metres lower than today. A small bridge of islands emerged, separated by swamp, marshland and narrow stretches of open sea, between the Horn of Africa and Sudan, at the south-east end of the Red Sea. This area is known today as the Gates of Grief. One group of modern humans came out of the continent via this route. At time of writing, these were thought to have been the ancestors of all non-African modern humans.

The First Goddess: The Sea

To the people wandering along the shore, the sea must have seemed to be the source of life itself. Everywhere they looked, in the rock pools, in the mud, in the shallows, in the inter-tidal zone, the waters teemed with living things. They had simply to gather up the food that nature provided for them. There would have been driftwood to build fires and shelters, and from the land near the coast they would have gleaned vegetables and other useful things, like grass to weave into baskets. The food supply would have been adequate. As they depleted each local resource, the group moved on.

When fresh water is scarce, one is certain to find it where rivers enter the sea, and many littoral plants, like coconuts, are a source of potable liquids. Palms and other shoreline vegetation would have provided shade and shelter. Our ancient foremothers wandered, moving along the shore from river mouth to river mouth.

The people who came across the Red Sea were modern, thinking, articulate humans like us. They would have tried to understand who they were and where they came from, just as we do.

Design and Agency

Humans seek design and agency in everything. When we see random patterns, we conceptualise them in anthropomorphic terms. We see faces in rock formations, in the branches of trees and in clouds. Whenever we encounter something we do not understand, our first reaction is to personalise it, to make it like us so that we can conceptualise it. We see agency in random events and constantly ascribe a sense of direction to the world around us. This is the root of the earliest belief system we know of, animism, which holds that everything contains a spirit force, a form of will that can be helpful or malign, benevolent or dangerous, depending on how we behave towards it. Animism remains an important world faith even today.


Women and the Sea

Women living by the sea might have noticed that their menstruation always coincided with the same phase of the moon and pattern of tides. They knew that when they gave birth, first came their waters. It was within this water that their babies had grown. They must have wondered how limitless, how unimaginable, the creative power of the sea must be, for everywhere they looked, it teemed with life. Women shared the ability to create life with a presence utterly incomprehensible in scale. That made them special. Having experienced the pain, delirium and delight of bringing forth life themselves, they must have wondered at the staggering power of the sea, always at the moment of parturition, constantly creating all life.

The natural reaction of a human mother pondering the mysteries of life beside the mighty ocean would be to conceptualise it as a living being, but on a scale so great as to be beyond comprehension. She would create, in her mind, a being with all the attributes that she had, yet multiplied immeasurably in power. This being would be the animating force that guided the mighty ocean and controlled not only its destructive force but also its power of creation. The woman would create a deity: a Great Mother. But note: this Mother was ferocious and violent as well as loving and nurturing.

At that moment, the Goddess opened her eyes and smiled on the children who so fondly invented her. She answered their deep psychological need to know about themselves, and to find a reason for their lives: the people came from the sea and the sea provided for them. And in return, the people praised the sea, came to worship her as their mother. They found spiritual purpose in her praise.

Creation myths

The Sea features in the original creation myths in many ancient cultures. We shall look in detail at the Sumerian mythology, one of the earliest for which we have a written record, because it directly informs many other, later cultures, especially the Abrahamic ones. Here, the first Goddess was Nammu, the Eternal Sea, who created, alone, the Earth and the Sky in her womb. This element in the creation-myth of a people who lived so far inland may be a lingering folk-memory of a time when their ancestors lived by and from the sea, which was their first mother, their protector, their Goddess.

Life was probably good for the people wandering naked along the shore. A tropical littoral forest is a paradise, a genuine nature’s larder. One can pick the food from the trees or scoop it from the rivers or the shoreline, and this largesse is available all year round. During the day, women would gather fuel and forage for food and prepare it, and as the sun set the people would group around the fire to eat and talk.

This is how we are, we humans: at the end of the day of toil we come together to cook our food, eat and chat — and tell stories. So there would have been story-tellers. Sitting in the dancing firelight in the balmy tropical evening, for night falls early there, people would tell stories to amuse and teach each other. Those who huddled together in the evening were less likely to become prey, get lost or have an accident in the dark, so entertaining the group, making it stay together, would have had an evolutionary benefit.


Storytelling, the basis of all art, thus became innate to us. We delight in it, even to this day, both as the tellers of tales and those who watch and listen, wide-eyed, as we conjure up unimaginable things.

The stories were handed down from generation to generation. But there are many nights and much need of stories, so new ones would have been invented all the time. These may have told of the ancestors, perhaps recalling a dim memory of life in the interior of the great continent. Perhaps the ancestors themselves were remembered in tales that grew in the retelling, until their strength or wisdom or beauty was more than merely human; that is a tradition that has carried forward to this day.

Some tales might have explained distant features that the people could see, such as mountains and forests — and the strange beings that might live there. They might explain the animals that we hunted, or that hunted us. And what of the sea itself? Did it extend only as far as the eye could see and then come to an end, or did it go on forever?

Sometimes, the stories would have been funny. There would have been jokes and laughter. Sometimes the stories were sad and told of lost loves or the parting of ways. Humans then were just like humans now and story-telling is an ancient craft indeed. This telling of stories was the beginning of the oral tradition, the origin of myth. Germs of these myths were retained and handed down for hundreds of generations.

Women and the Goddess

In this society the women and children formed the hub around which the group of male hunters orbited. Women, sharing the power of creation with the Sea Goddess, appeared to be part of her. Their bodies synchronised with the moon and the tides. And they were able to bring forth life and sustain it by the magical power to make milk until the child was old enough to eat the food provided by the sea and the hunters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.