Dr Fabio Silva's Alumni Association talk

A Journey Through Pre-history

16 and 23 November 2016

Reviewed by Tore Lomsdalen, PhD Candidate, University of Malta.

This two-session course of 90 minutes each took us on a journey through 6 to 8 million years of our prehistory. Fabio began with pre-humans, when humans and chimpanzees shared common ancestor species living in Africa, and ended at the very end of the European Neolithic into the Bronze Age about 3,500 before the present (BP). Not only did Fabio explain the evolution of the human species as such, but also interestingly conceptualised the various periods into a cognitive ability for external symbolic storage (ESS) and spatial knowledge within the material culture they lived.

Session 1 - From Lucy to Lascaux: the Rise of Homo sapiens

Fabio covered 7 million years of hominid history based on Palaeoanthropology (empirical science) and Cognitive Archaeology (framework for interpretation), inferring some of the most important pieces of evidence of ESS and spatial awareness in his interpretation, and at the same time keeping the sky as a backdrop. Relating to the very early species, he showed us that 2.6 million years ago (MYA), a hominine technology of stone tool-making and scavenging already existed as a basic form of spatial knowledge. This further developed through the Homo erectus period 1.9-0.07 MYA moving out of Africa to Europe and parts of Asia. Homo heidelbergensis 600-200 thousand years ago (KYA) appeared to contain modern spatial cognition through a sense of ordered landscape, using non-lithic technology and making figurines sprayed with red ochre, suggesting a symbolic culture, perhaps also ritualised. They were followed by Homo neanderthalensis 250-40 KYA who were skilled hunters and possessed highly advanced lithic technology who occasionally buried their dead with symbolic ornaments (and possibly rituals). The cycle culminated with the earliest anatomically-modern humans, the Homo sapiens 200 KYA- Present, who provided the earliest evidence of 'fully modern behaviour'.

Fabio concluded this cycle of hominine evolution by asking relevant questions on sky involvement: did they recognise celestial cycles, observe the night sky, have a horizon calendar and turn the sky into skyscape and, probably a cosmology, within a system of beliefs? When it comes to skyscape, we have more questions than answers from these periods. Nevertheless, posing legitimate questions could very well open the way for potential future research.

Session 2 - From Shell Middens to Stonehenge

An engaging subtitle for this session was: Monumentalizing Skyscapes.

Fabio Silva

Dr Fabio Silva at the WebEx Alumni Short Course

Fabio started this talk by considering the Upper Palaeolithic 40-12 KYA, illustrating the magnificent paintings from some of the hundreds of caves mainly in Western Europe. He suggested that some of the iconography may represent hunting and fertility magic, shamanism, rites, altered states of consciousness, and offered that stars and star groups could have had a significant meaning for hunting and gathering.

That cave paintings represented symbolic content and were not merely created for the 'sake of art' is sustained by the human ability to process spatial knowledge and external symbolic storage at complex levels that has existed at least as far back as the Palaeolithic and appears to be universal to almost all individuals and all societies (Donald 1991, Zubrow and Daly 1998: 157-58). This narrative affirmed the concept of Monumentalizing Skyscape, the subtitle of this session, as the sky is half the world in any society, whether prehistoric, historic or modern.

This is exactly what Fabio indicated by bringing us through the last ten thousand years of human history, looking at how structures of a monumental nature were constructed concealing elements of cosmological nature often in connection to mortuary rites, rituals, feasts, and ceremonies. Several of these structures were oriented or aligned towards celestial events such as the heliacal rising of stars and star groups, and the seasonal rising and setting of the sun and the moon.

From my perspective, Fabio could have included the prehistoric Maltese temples, as they are not only the world's oldest freestanding stone structures, but most of them have clearly defined alignments to celestial bodies, especially the sun. Besides that, the Mnajdra Temple is the oldest 'Calendar in Stone' in the world (Lomsdalen 2014: 1-2). This omission, however, does not detract in any way from the high quality of this two-part course. It would simply have been a valid supplement to European prehistoric monumentality.

The course was so well structured and presented that it was actually possible to conceive such a vast amount of material in such a short time. We look forward to a continuation of the topic!

Tore Lomsdalen

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