When I began studying archaeology, one of the big questions was, what makes humans different from other animals? The answers have been shifting throughout my life, from our use of tools and language, to our adaptability. Now the changes we have made in our world have caused us to name the current epoch in geological time for ourselves. Whether that is hubris or simple assumption of responsibility only time will tell. I no longer think that there is any point to this question, beyond simple classification of species. We are part of a greater whole, and our place within it shifts, as do the places of the rest of this organism called Planet Earth. One of the things we humans do exceedingly well, however, is tell stories. We can’t really help it, this capacity is such a part of us that most of the time we don’t even realize that that is what we are doing. We have been choosing to tell the ones that set us apart from every other being, the ones that make us special, that give us the right to determine the fate of all beings.
We have done our best over the last few centuries to pull apart our world, to turn each piece over and see how it works and what it does. This, in planetary terms, is the equivalent of a baby discovering its fingers and toes. The antiquarians and Victorians created marvelous catalogues of the life on this planet. Useful and beautiful, they are a guide that allows us to orient ourselves and our studies, but they also shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. The tree of life has us at its apex, evolved from the lower animals. Since we are the storytellers, it is no surprise that we are the center. The story of archaeology gets even more specific to us, chronicling our rise from hunter-gatherers to the heights of civilization. While I learned the pitfalls of ethnocentrism, and that the hierarchical model of our evolution, cultural and physical, was only a portion of the truth, the idea of the great chain of being is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is difficult to see it. Egalitarianism is an idea that we find attractive, but we’re really not very good at thinking of ourselves or our world in that way. It is an option, not an imperative.
I don’t think it was always this way. We know how to share, and we are as capable of cooperation as we are of domination. While it is very difficult to separate the assumptions of the first ethnographers (or even the current ones) from the realities of life in the cultures they studied, it appears that the closer to the land the groups studied were, the more cooperative their ways of life were. While it is very easy to create from this idea a myth of an interdependent Eden, it’s also possible to use it as a means of breaking the invisible bonds of hierarchy and allow us to see ourselves and our place in the world more clearly. We can compare ourselves to other animals, weigh our various cultures against each other, and get an idea of how varied the ways we are capable of interacting with each other and our world are, but the one thing I do not believe that we will ever do is find the one best way of being human.
The pace of change has become a race, run for its own sake, with no clear goal. We are falling over our own feet in our haste to get to a future whose shape is unknown. We have become Kali, trampling the earth to mud as we dance in celebration of our own godhood. We have moments of remembering our connection to that which we are destroying, but distraction in the form of new possessions, power, or other means of changing our consciousness is infinitely preferable to utter terror, so we keep dancing, keep consuming. We keep reaching for that golden finish line, not realizing it is the light of our own destruction.
We can change the storyline any time we want to. Some of us have spent their whole lives working towards this. We have, as a result, a vast number of very useful tools to hand. We know how to harness the power of the Sun, and how to read the book of life that resides in every cell. The knowledge we have gathered, and the disciplines that grew out of them, have shown us how our world works and where we came from, and the story is growing clearer with every discovery and every connection made. We have clearly seen the faces of the planets in our solar system, and of the Earth.
We stand at a wonderful, terrible, pivotal moment in time. We are in the midst of a change that is as monumental as the discovery of agriculture, when we discovered how to strike a bargain with plants and animals that changed the nature of life on this planet. We are still bound by the terms of that agreement, no matter how hard we try to forget we ever made it, and now we must extend it to the whole planet. We have gained the power to reshape the world in a way even more fundamental than the domestication of a few species who were willing to cooperate with us. We are now being called to partnership with the planet as a whole.
Our ability to tell stories is not unique. The Earth, the solar system, the Universe tell them all the time. We can read the book of life, and our stories are written within it. The story of our choices now will be there as well, if there is anyone left to read it.