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Very Early Political Symbols Barry Cooper; Talk given at U Wisconsin, Madison, April 5, 2013

The context of this project is provided by several books I have written on Eric Voegelin (1901-85), one of the great political philosophers of the last century. The most recent, which is just about finished, deals with Voegelins later work. It is called Politics and Consciousness, and considers his philosophy of history and philosophy of consciousness and constitutes the methodological underpinning for the project Im going to discuss today. In 2008, with one of my former students, I edited Voegelin Recollected, a collection of interviews with his colleagues and students. Several of his German students mentioned that late in life he became interested in Upper Paleolithic (50K to 10K years ago) and Neolithic (10K to 7K years ago) political and religious symbolism. He had in fact mentioned this new initiative in a lecture I heard when I was a graduate student but I paid little attention to his remarks at the time since I had no clue about the context or how this symbolism might be related to the

conventional subject-matter of political science, which usually begins with Plato and Aristotle. Voegelin however, in keeping with what the Germans call antiquity studies or Altertumswissenschaft, began his masterpiece, Order and History, with an analysis of the agricultural empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, along with the political and religious symbolism of the Israelites. In later volumes he discussed the Greeks and their successors as well as China. Notwithstanding his interest in prehistoric political symbols, and apart from a few hints in his correspondence and published lectures and papers, Voegelin never completed an analysis of this material. Nor has anyone else, although the extensive literature written by paleoscientists archeologists, paleoanthropologists, paleobiologists, paleoastronomers, and so on deals indirectly with questions of importance to political science. For their own legitimate methodological reasons, paleoscientists ask different questions of the evidence than do political scientists and make different assumptions. I plan to examine the political symbols created prior to the Ancient Near Eastern empires and open a new chapter in the

scholarship of political science by integrating these materials into a long historical tradition of inquiry. During the nineteenth century, historians and ethnologists, from Comte and Marx to Tylor and Morgan, produced grand, progressive, and often conjectural arguments regarding the great sweep of human history, including prehistory. After the invention of radiocarbon dating and later improvements to it, prehistory came to mean very early or pretextual history, not a-historic. Today paleoscientific specialization and much greater reliance on detailed recording of mostly material evidence excavated from stratified earthen contexts have made such grand nineteenth-century narratives unfashionable and unscientific. The creative and very recent response to paleoscientific specialization has been called, in contrast to prehistory, big history or deep history. For these scholars, the distinction between history and prehistory is arbitrary; I agree. This literature, however, generally contains only brief discussions of archaic political order. One reason seems to be the widespread identification of political order with the process of creating agriculture-based empires, and what is

conventionally called state-formation. This usage is anachronistic because an empire is no more a state than is a polis; state as a political term was coined by Machiavelli. In contrast to the superficial discussion of archaic politics, Robert Bellah, a sociologist of religion, spent nearly half of his 700-page book on various archaic religious experiences using an anthropological concept, the general order of existence, first developed by Clifford Geertz. For Bellah and Geertz, who traced the term to Durkheim, the general order of existence was primarily a religious concept. It can equally be applied to politics on the grounds that the order of archaic societies was as much political as religious. That is, the general order of existence is best understood as a politicoreligious concept. To modify Geertzs definition: the focus of this project is on symbols that provide archaic humans, particularly those living during the Upper Paleolithic, with long-lasting intellectual structures and meanings that made sense of the general order of existence. So: we have to make assumptions. The most basic assumption is that Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic human beings were as much

engaged in a search for the meaning of their personal and community (or political) lives as the inhabitants of Ancient Near Eastern empires, the Greeks, the Israelites, or contemporary human beings. That is, the consciousness of UP humans was as open to the full range of reality as we are. Early peoples were not therefore experientially inferior to us but, on the contrary, they were as intelligent and thoughtful as modern humans and they, like us, were concerned with such spiritual or existential questions as the origin and purpose of individual and collective existence and its order and meaning. Accordingly, paleosymbols express a common human search for an attunement to, or an understanding of, the general order of existence. I also assume, as do many (though not all) paleoscientists, that UP humans expressed their experience of the general order of existence by way of some of the surviving artifacts. Specifically, mobilary (or portable and usually personal) and parietal (or mural and usually cave) art (though art is not is not the best term to describe cave images and figures or artifacts such as polished skulls, scratched pieces of bone, or decorated stones.

This art is widely understood to be the earliest evidence for modern human attributes and behavioural capabilities including symbolic consciousness, religion, and language. The most spectacular examples are found in the decorated caves of Franco-Cantabria dating from the Upper Paleolithic, though very often the older mobilary art, namely decorated stones, engraved bone and antler, mammoth plaques etc., is equally symbolic. Moreover, considerable political or religious organization was required to develop and sustain the artistic skills to produce the imagery (to say nothing about feeding or providing light to the artists at work in deep and often almost inaccessible caves) and, since the caves were often in use for millennia but access was severely limited (no one lived in them), some kind of politico-religious authority was in place to regulate and limit admittance. This is an important difference in approach. A paleoscientist looking, for example, at Chauvet cave is likely to focus on the imagery it contains and little else. (Paleoscientists take distinct approaches to this material, but we can overlook this problem here.) For political scientists, two things are likely to stand out. First, the most significant feature of

the cave is that the site was in use for 10+K years, which indicates a stable ritual order and a long-term political structure to protect it and regulate access. Likewise the importance of the monuments at Newgrange or Stonehenge was not just that they are Neolithic observatories or ways to measure and integrate solar and lunar cycles, but that they took several million human-days to construct, which indicates the existence of an extensive political order and an organized and enforced division of labour. A second and more fundamental difference must be noted. Following the familiar Darwinian assumptions that undergird most of their work, paleoscientists almost always use quasi-economic models to interpret behaviour based on the archaeological record. Such assumptions are usually taken as self-evident so that the data serve to support the model rather than test it. One way of avoiding at least the more egregious problems of a priori exclusion of relevant data is to specify the appropriate criteria of relevance to the study of human being, whether contemporary or prehistorical. That is, the assumptions noted above must be justified.

Ever since Kant, such a justification has been described among philosophers as an anthropology, which is to be distinguished from anthropology as a social science. Early in the twentieth century social scientists and philosophers began to use the term philosophical anthropology to distinguish their analysis of human being from analysis undertaken by ethnographers, physical anthropologists, social anthropologists, cultural anthropologists, and so on. By considering only what are on Darwinian/economic grounds the more accessible aspects of the remote past, paleoscientists have emphasized questions of subsistence, mating networks, resource procurement, settlement patterns and, in general, ecological variables. All such variables are, in principle, phenomenal; that is, they appear in the world of phenomena. This is why human consciousness for almost all paleoscientists is confined to perceptual consciousness. One consequence is that paleoscientists have tended to de-emphasize social and political structures and meanings and what might be called spiritual experience often enough on the grounds that they cannot be measured.

The theoretical and methodological problem is that, for example, the animal images on the walls of caves are not just pictures of local fauna --palimpsests are what paleoscientists typically call them-- but, by our hypothesis, the perceived image is transparent for a non-phenomenal but nevertheless experientially real meaning. But what is that meaning? What do the aurochs, horses, bison, mammoths, signs and non-animal figures mean? Although I do not plan to provide a comprehensive, riddle-solving final account of these dense and highly complex and ambiguous symbolic structures, in Consciousness and Politics I provided a model of consciousness as participation in reality, which is both phenomenal and non-phenomenal, that addressed the problem of political meaning on its own terms rather than reduce it to economics or biology or perceptions of phenomena. It was developed on the basis of Voegelins analysis of politico-religious symbols as expressions of the meaning of political life and the general order of existence. Voegelin (2001) began his magnum opus, Order and History, by considering the compact cosmological order expressed in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian symbolism. By compact cosmological


order is meant: (1) the general order of existence in these societies was understood by the people living in them as being analogous to, and part of, the observable ordered rhythms of the cosmos --including the changes of night and day, the phases of the moon, the seasons, tides, floods, ordered changes in the night sky, celestial rhythms of the constellations and so on; (2) the authorities responsible for maintaining the political order understood their task to be the integration of relatively fragile and militarily threatened imperial organizations with the longerlasting and more fundamental cosmic changes; (3) they expressed their political purposes in rituals such as marked the New Year, the flooding of the Nile, or in the recitation of epic texts that took the literary form of cosmogonic and cosmological myths the Gilgamesh story in Mesopotamia, for instance. The break with this compact cosmological order was in the West subsequently expressed in the differentiated symbols of the Israelites, which we conventionally call revelation, on the one hand, and of the Greek philosophers on the other, which we conventionally call philosophy or reason. Obviously, such traditions have endured (with modifications) in the West up to the present. Even if


we think of philosophy and revelation as advances of some sort, we need to be clear about what they advanced from namely the immediate, primary, or compact experience of the cosmos as the source of the general order of existence. And that experience is still with us, even if expressed in the mathematical language of modern cosmology. The simple but universal expressions of a common human experience of the cosmos as the source of the general order of existence appeal directly to our consciousness. Such experiences are fundamental in that any critique or analysis, any skepticism or the reduction of them to something else (such as to biology or to economics) presuppose that the immediate experience can be held at an imaginative reflective distance in order to be criticized, analyzed, reduced, etc. In commonsense language, a differentiated experience of the general order of existence can produce a more comprehensive account or analysis of experienced cosmic reality than can a more compact one. That is, the reflective distance inherent in modern mathematically expressed scientific cosmologies and modern consciousness makes those accounts in a sense truer than the recitation of an epic poem, which


requires greater and more immediate imaginative participation (and thus less reflective distance) to convey a meaning. But this does not mean that the search for truth, even in modern scientific cosmology, ever concludes in a permanent achievement or final dogmatic statement of the truth. When Einstein famously said God doesnt play dice with the world he was expressing an immediate and fundamental experience of the cosmos the word in Greek means order-- where humans still live and which, ex hypothesi, began with the traditions that flowered in the work of the anonymous artists who produced the cave imagery. Whenever the beginning was, then, the primary experience of the cosmos remains with us. Stone Age humans expressed both the search for, and the general order of, existence in visual rather than textual terms. The meaning of the cave imagery is complex, enigmatic and, as many paleoscientists have said, its meaning(s) may have been lost; but once lost, the meaning of any particular symbolization can be recovered by focused, attentive, and imaginative analytical interpretation expressed in a compelling narrative. This approach, routinely applied to the great texts of Western


political philosophy, can also be applied to the interpretation of Stone Age symbols. Indeed, some imaginative paleoscientists have advanced tentative narratives accounting for cave imagery and connected it to mobilary art. Compared to earlier theories about what the UP art meant, these modern theories are much more insightful. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Paleolithic hunters were considered primitives and their art was regarded as ornamentation, decoration or embellishment. Later it was appreciated as modern art (On visiting Lascaux, Picasso is supposed to have said, we have invented nothing. Under the interpretive regime of Abb Henri Breuil (1877-1961), who relied on Frazers Golden Bough, the theory of hunting magic and fertility magic was invoked to explain images of wounded bison and triangles. During the 1960s, Annette Laming-Emperaire, and Andr Leroi-Gourhan, following the structuralism of Claude Lvi-Strauss, argued that the cave imagery was a complex structured composition. Today however, their phenomenological arguments have been supplemented with genealogical ones .


Three innovative and, for paleoscientists practicing Kuhns normal science, controversial approaches have implications for UP political symbolization. The first, strongly supported by Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, argues that Upper Paleolithic art is the product of shamanic experiences. They argue that (1) the rock face of a cave is a veil or membrane on the other side of which lies the spirit world; the true cosmic underground; this interpretation reinforced the connection between the cave as a physical space that is literally under ground and the cave as a symbolic liminal space that provides access by adepts (or shamans) to the lowest tier of the spiritual cosmos; (2) the images on cave walls dissolved the membrane to allow the otherwise invisible spirits on the other side to slip through and appear. Thus, images were not so much painted on rock walls but, as David Lewis-Williams said, released from, or coaxed through, the living membrane between the image-maker and the spirit world. This description, it seems to me, is phenomenologically astute. Such insights, however, are often diminished by methodological constraints that reduce the experience of the spirit world and consciousness of it to a matter of environmental


sensory deprivation (caves are dark, wet, cold, and silent) and brain physiology. As noted earlier, such differences reflect different assumptions brought to bear on the evidence by paleoscientists and political scientists. A second innovative approach has been advanced by Alexander Marshack who was likely the first mathematically sophisticated scholar to examine, using a geologists field microscope, incised bones, bone fragments, antlers, etc. on the basis that they were evidence of an intelligible and sophisticated tradition of complex and polyvalent lunar notations that indicated to the Upper Paleolithic hunters their place in the cosmos. Some of Marshacks examples of compact cosmological symbolism were found on artifacts that antedate the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe --the Tata plaque is around 100KY old. A third innovator, Marie Knig, began her scholarly career with the study of Celtic numismatics and, relying on Karl Jaspers and the philosophical anthropologists of the 1920s, discovered what she took to be figurative and numerical patterns that, she thought, had been


transmitted from much earlier times. Her research on ice-age art her to develop a complex argument akin to that of Marshack and centered on the significance of the phases of the moon as a regulator of time that was symbolized in images of the horns of aurochs and bison and of the tusks of mammoths. In the Font-de-Gaume cave, for instance, she argued that the mammoths and bison were connected to from a continuous calendar of lunar phases, which again suggested that the images of horses represented the sun. Moreover, she also argued that the occlusion and death of the old moon was a prelude to the resurrection of the new moon, which connected the celestial cosmic rhythms to the experiences of the certainty of human death and the hope of resurrection, all of which reflected long lasting cosmological conceptions. I plan to integrate these three approaches with other paleoscientific analyses on the basis of the philosophical anthropology developed in Consciousness and Politics. In sum, what is novel in this application of political science to the expression of very early experiences of political-cosmological reality is this: if political scientists can legitimately be concerned with the


compact political-cosmological meaning of ancient Mesopotamian rituals or Egyptian tomb inscriptions, there is no reason why we cannot consider even earlier material and non-verbal forms of symbolization including rites (such as are indicated by the term shamanism as used by contemporary archeologists and prehistorians) as well as to the visual symbolizations of cave art, and perhaps even to the art produced by Neanderthals. Lacking texts, we may have no direct access to the stories and myths told by Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic humans, but we have access to the more permanent material traces by which they grappled with the common mysteries of human life. For example, incisions of lines and grids in a rock-shelter may arguably have been recordings of changes in the phases of the moon, a cosmic cycle to which humans attempted to attune their lives. The issue of attunement to cosmic changes is even more evident in later Neolithic structures at Newgrange, Knowth, Stonehenge and at some North American Indian sites that are often misnamed medicine wheels. Such preliterate evidence of the recording of celestial rhythms was accompanied, we know from later


literary evidence, by myths concerning terrestrial rhythms of flora and fauna (such as the migration of ungulates or fish), by birth and rebirth stories, by stories of instability in the heavens, and so on. Moreover, as with access to the Upper Paleolithic decorated caves, a significant political organization was needed to construct the public works we know as Neolithic monuments. In short, this project aims to push back the historical frontier of the analysis of political symbols into what we conventionally call prehistory. It is an exciting prospect, not least of all because paleoscientists, who have accumulated a great deal of new data over the past generation, have hardly begun the task of interpretation. This is not to say that I aim to provide a comprehensive, riddle-solving final account of what are unquestionably dense and highly complex symbolic structures. I do believe, however, that, with due attention to the problem of compact and differentiated consciousness and symbolization, the application of this insight from political science to prehistoric materials may enable political scientists to add their voices to the conversation


among paleoscientists regarding the ways that very early human beings understood themselves.