Human groups have probably sought to understand how and why they have come to be where they are since they first developed language capable of arguing over such things. This brings us to the problem of how we come to know what we think we know about history. Although history, by definition, is written we need to go further back.
Our parents and grandparents can tell us their version of relatively recent events. We run into problems when we want to know details of events that happened before anyone now living was born. But not even two written eyewitness accounts of any event are likely to be the same. We don’t have identical perspectives or make identical interpretations. Therefore there is an immediate bias at the origin of any version of history. Before we even begin to consider the influence of any propaganda element along with all the personal (or collective) assumptions, prejudices and preconceptions.
You can understand that although written sources provide us with information for much of the world from the period since writing developed, these sources too are open to interpretation and can be unreliable. Before writing was invented, history was transmitted by stories passed from generation to generation. These stories may be as reliable as written records for relatively recent events although again we must always be aware of the point of view of the person telling the story (Sturgis 2001).
Stories about ancient events passed by word of mouth within groups of people evolve into what are called “myths”. Myths are stories that attempt to make sense of the complexity of existence. They usually include at least some speculation about the origin of the group, humans as a whole and even the universe itself. They define a beginning and are part of any group’s culture. They are often also used to justify a particular group’s claim ahead of some other group or groups. Marc Swartz and David Jordan (1980) write,
“A myth is a story which embodies the values that are important to a culture and which has an aura of sanctity about it”. In other words myths are a view of history that provide a model for behaviour. Shared stories and beliefs help unite groups or tribes. In fact writing has actually preserved many different myths from throughout the world. Studying them gives us interesting insights into the collective mentality of any culture to which they belong.
But each myth must be considered from our present perspective. Many people seem to believe oral tradition or myth is able to maintain the absolute and unaltered truth through many generations. Unfortunately of course myths and legends themselves evolve and are just as self-serving as any written source. Stories diversify fastest as different versions are retold during the first few generations.
Many completely different versions of a story circulate from soon after the events that give rise to it. The stories then mix, and they form hybrids. They undergo selection and survival of the fittest. Eventually it becomes politically desirable to have just one easily remembered hybrid version of the story. By then, many different stories will have gathered around the hero and several different heroes will have accumulated the same story. In spite of these problems even many people skeptical of written sources show a surprising willingness to accept oral tradition as truth.
Myths contain easily as much propaganda as do any government press release. Traditional stories may well be transmitted in “schools of ancient oral learning”, and punishments may well be used to make sure the stories and genealogies are remembered accurately, but the stories are still likely to be conveniently adjusted as they pass from generation to generation.
On the other hand I would suggest we could regard everything we believe about our origin as serving the function of myth as defined above by Swartz and Jordan (see also Tudge 1996). Origin beliefs influence our ideas and so our behaviour. Although most of us would differentiate between myth and history in reality they are often quite difficult to separate. Most versions of history involve at least some elements of speculation and even today our myths affect our interpretations of the evidence.
But as a working definition I suggest we could say a myth is a history that appears to have originally been transmitted orally. And further, the people who believe the history can’t actually prove it by any evidence available. In many cases the myth may well be true but in others it can actually be proved incorrect by evidence now available. I will present some examples from New Zealand soon. And of course there are other ones from other parts of the world.
To find the truth about ancient events we can use science. The scientific method involves the process of examining the available evidence, speculating on a reason for it and then setting up a theory. This theory is next examined through any experiments and observations capable of either proving or disproving it. If the theory seems to account for the evidence it is presented to the wider world and eventually (often many years later) either accepted or finally rejected.
But any myth would almost certainly have originally developed in much the same way although in most cases it is not capable of proof by experiment. We can safely assume the people who developed myths were not stupid although they often had to resort to the supernatural to explain things they couldn’t understand. Contrasting beliefs are set against each other and the facts examined in both cases. Surely any belief has to fit the facts as understood at the time.
All knowledge accumulates by the interaction of ideas. In fact in some ways the creation and spread of knowledge, myths and ideas demonstrate the wave theory of evolution (“Hybrid Vigour and Inbreeding”). In other words they evolve. Ideas bounce around the world, join up, expand then rebound like ripples in the human star. Inadequate theories or wrong ideas eventually become extinct unless they provide an advantage for powerful elements in society. In that case they can last for centuries.
The scientific method as we now understand it developed in Europe as a product of the Renaissance (roughly between 1450 and 1650 AD) and many great thinkers contributed to it. The Renaissance itself had evolved gradually with the infusion of knowledge into Christian Europe from the Muslim world.
The Muslim world was far ahead of Europe in knowledge of the natural world at the time. The expansion of Islam had brought together Arabs, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Chinese, Zoroastrians, Mithraists, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and Pagans and the community was able to combine and analyse all this knowledge. Muslims had also “made original contributions to alchemy, astronomy, mathematics, optics, surgery and medicine” (Fyrth and Goldsmith 1965).
Many ancient Greek writers, whom many people accept as being the great thinkers of the ancient world, had also been translated into Arabic. Although the Greeks made a huge contribution to mathematics (school children still hear the name Pythagoras) they valued logic and deduction more than experiment. This is not surprising. They were hampered in their science by their lack of knowledge. Advances in technology have increased our knowledge considerably since their time.
As the Renaissance flowered powerful people began to oppose the scientific method as the results began to conflict with the prevailing mythological conception of the universe. The Inquisition condemned several early scientists to be burned at the stake. Things seem to have become a little more liberal since 1619 when the Inquisition had Lucilio Vanini burned for suggesting that humans might have evolved from apes (Corfield 2001). Even as soon after as 1632 Galileo was merely placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for suggesting the earth went around the sun.
In fact the Inquisition had been established before the Renaissance, in 1231, to stamp out any questioning of the Christian Church’s authority (Fyrth and Goldsmith 1965). But opposition to questioning the prevailing mythology was not new even then. As long ago as 399 BC one of the greatest Greek thinkers, Socrates, had been ordered to either commit suicide or go into exile when he had been judged guilty of not believing in the gods in which the people believed. He was also judged guilty of corrupting young people by encouraging them to query traditional ideas, perceptions, assumptions and prejudices.
There appears to be a survival of this opposition to the questioning of mythology. For example Norman Golb (1995) has experienced huge resistance to a possible interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ significance that conflicts with traditional beliefs about the beginning of modern Judaism and Christianity. Many of us are also unable to accept what an overall look at the evidence tells us about the human settlement of the earth when it conflicts with our mythological assumptions.
Obviously, myths and legends preserve elements of what we would call history; and myth can sometimes help us understand the evidence. But in trying to fit the evidence to a particular myth, often a great deal of evidence actually discovered has to be ignored, even if unconsciously, when it conflicts with the myth. As a result usually too many inconsistencies develop. Bahn and Flenley (1992) for example point out relevant evidence Thor Heyerdahl had to ignore in relation to his theories on the Easter Islanders’ origin.
On the other hand many great discoveries have been made by people looking for evidence to support a myth and we shouldn’t hesitate to use this information.
But oral tradition or myth is not reliable as history, as we can show by many examples from New Zealand. Here are just a few. The plant tainui (Pomaderris apetala) is said to have grown from the branches used for the flooring in an early immigrant canoe of that name. In New Zealand, the plant grows naturally only in the coastal Tainui tribal district or rohe. The only other place in the world the plant is found is Tasmania. How it got to New Zealand is a mystery but if the myth is true the Tainui canoe must have come from Tasmania. I’ve never yet heard of anyone suggesting this is at all likely.
Maori myths about yet another origin canoe, the Aotea, claim the people in it brought kumara or sweet potato to New Zealand along with other plants such as karaka, cabbage tree and bracken fern, birds such as kakariki and pukeko and, in fact, everything useful to prehistoric Maori. Many of the accompanying items were obviously here long before any humans arrived. Can this story be taken as truth? On Easter Island there is a similar belief that all plants useful to the original inhabitants (including those obviously native) had been brought to the island by the first king (Bahn and Flenley 1992).
It is probable that Maori myths of canoe migrations derive from a hybrid of stories. These concern the original Polynesian arrival in New Zealand along with more recent internal migrations that had resulted from the collapse of resources within the first two or three hundred years of their arrival. All cultures have these sorts of myth. Families tend to get pushed around over time. And even within our own lifetime we get confused and often combine events in our memory that actually occurred at different times.
New Zealand Maori tradition had no memory of the extinct large flightless birds, the various moa species. Myth-believers interpret this as proving another people displaced the Moa-Hunters. It is more likely to indicate oral tradition is not actually reliable for historical events older than about 200 years.
It seems we always need to have a defined beginning. The first words in the Bible are “In the beginning” and I believe that this idea continues to influence our interpretation of the evidence concerning our evolution.
Anyway, groups of people, including nations, usually evolve myths about their origins. They are very seldom the whole truth. For example “Australians are descended from convicts”, “the Japanese are a very homogeneous and distinct people” and “the United States of America was settled by people who wished to escape oppression”. New Zealand’s myth is that the European element came here to found a country that would recreate the hierarchical rural class system they perceived as already rapidly vanishing back home in England. In fact, many of our ancestors came via Australia for one reason or another but I think we might stay away from those two myths.
The Japanese people are a genetically distinct population but not because they result from a single migration into those islands. They are a unique combination that has resulted from a series of immigrants who became isolated at the extreme end of the human star’s East Asian point (and see Hammer and Horai 1995). Any ancient groups could have got there by walking as Japan was connected to the Asian mainland at times of low sea level (Clark 1969 and Cavalli-Sforza 1995).
Humans were in Japan by 30,000 to 35,000 years ago (Hammer and Horai 1995) and possibly much earlier. The first mammoth hunters arrived in the region about 30,000 years ago. I suspect their language was to eventually give rise to such languages as Na-Dene, Ket, Sino-Tibetan and even Polynesian. But language usually moves faster than genes and, in general, technology moves faster than language. The next immigrants to Japan were members of a circum-polar movement of microlithic-using people (micro – little, lithic – stone).
Their language probably gave rise to the Ainu languages, which eventually replaced any earlier ones in Japan. A subsequent expansion around the western shore of the Pacific Ocean also has a connection with Japan. This spread people from Polynesia to North America and was the product of earlier movements of genes, technology and culture. More recently, around 200 to 300 BC, the rice cultivating Yayoi people moved from Korea (Clark 1969). They probably introduced the modern Japanese language.
Each of these movements remained isolated in Japan long enough to combine with any previous populations to form a distinctive, homogeneous stabilised hybrid population before the next lot of people arrived (“Hybrid Vigour and Inbreeding” [Survival]). The most recent mixing hasn’t yet been completed, as there is still a small group of distinct Ainu people in Northern Japan, though most modern Japanese would probably have some Ainu ancestry.
This process of gene flow has been happening throughout the world since humans first appeared. In fact many evolution-deniers are more than happy to accept the human population of Egypt, for example, has changed since the pyramids were built. There has been a series of waves of invaders including Nubians, Canaanites, Libyans, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Turks, French and English. Almost certainly, many genes remain from the ancient population but any “original” population was presumably already the product of many waves of immigration.
Any idea there is such a thing as a “pure” race is completely ridiculous. In spite of popular ideas evolution doesn’t work like that. The concept of pure breeds in animals is also artificial. Most breeds have actually been formed from what were originally geographically isolated populations though. A pure breed is simply a product of the particular time when the studbook is closed and no other individuals are allowed into the breed.
I will avoid elaborating on the other origin myth I mentioned although I’d like to quote without further comment from Tim Flannery’s (2001) book “The Eternal Frontier”. “Pilgrims from England and the Netherlands had been contracted to establish a settlement in the New World by the Virginia Company, whose sole purpose was to profit by trade”.
Bahn, Paul and Flenley, John (1992) Easter Island, Earth Island. Thames and Hudson, London
Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca and Cavalli-Sforza, Francesco (1995) The Great Human Diasporas. Addison- Wesley
Clark, Grahame (1969) World Prehistory. Cambridge University Press, UK.
Fyrth, H. J. and Goldsmith, M. (1965) Science History and Technology Book 1. Cassell, London.
Golb, Norman (1995) Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? Michael O’Mara Books, Great Britain.
Hammer, Michael F. and Horai, Satoshi (1995) Y Chromosomal DNA Variation and the Peopling of Japan. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 56: 951-962
Sturgis, Matthew (2001) It Ain’t Necessarily So. Headline Book Publishing, London.