Sunday, November 4, 2012

#114. Our Paleolithic Roots

ARCHIVE. For a list of all my published posts:

This is the 14th in the series of blog entries I began with #101-- a collection of notes and essays (and book reviews, I'm just realizing) from my files all dealing in one way or another with the emerging new religious consciousness. They are mostly things I've written over the last decade or two to clarify my own thoughts but which I would like to make available for anyone who might be interested.

Post #114 is a collection of notes from late 1995 on books focused in various ways on the Paleolithic roots of religion and spirituality.

If you have questions and think I might be of help, you're welcome to send me a note:


SACHA RUNA: Ethnicity and Adaptation of Ecudorian Jungle Quichua, by Norman E. Whitten, Jr (U of ILL Press, 1976)

This is written in a heavy and almost unreadable style, with lots of native terms (Spanish, too). It's about peoples who live a bit south of Coca and Sacha Lodge on the Rio Napo where I visited [with the Dodge Foundation rain forest studies group]. Lots of talk of shamans and spirits, but not in a form that makes it useful or even graspable. Too academic, alas.


The Spirit and the Flesh, Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture by Walter L. Williams. Beacon Press, Boston 1986.

A few years ago, in the summer of ‘92 when I spent some time taking a course in Environmental Chemistry at Bar Harbor, Maine, I came across a book by a Jungian analyst from San Francisco, Robert Hopche. I can’t remember the title, but it dealt with gay culture from a Jungian viewpoint, and was surprisingly helpful for an understanding of the differences between patriarchal and non-patriarchal manhood. It’s interesting that it was that recently that we were still formulating such a distinction!

2012 Note: It's been 20 years now, but it helped me to see that "the masculine" could be expressed in other than the most conventional terms of American culture. I once (in the early 1970s) heard Alan Watts say there were 12 basic sexes, but he didn't expand on it at the time. We've come along way since all that!

This book, The Spirit and the Flesh, is similar in value to Hopche's. It’s about Native American berdaches (Sioux: winkte), as known from past historical documents and contemporary Native Gay movements. The author is an “ethnohistorian” from the University of Southern California. The first several chapters are of great interest. A summary of the things I found most interesting (in no special order).

1. From a native point of view, biologically male persons may have a male spirit, or a female spirit, or a mixture of the two, or a spirit that is neither. (This contrasts greatly with Western Judeo-Christian culture which sees only an either/or possibility.)

2. In terms of this study, berdaches are always male. But their spirit is either male and female together, or something other than either. With very few exceptions, they are known and honored in most native cultures, world-wide.

3. Many myths tell of a time when people existed prior to any sexual differentiation. Berdaches may be embodiments of that pre-differentiation androgyny. They tend to be of great power. Myths characterize them as particularly inventive (creative).

4. Berdaches are not necessarily shamans. Shamans and berdaches have different functions, but there are a number of similarities. For example: a berdache becomes such because he is fated to, “by his nature and his dreams,” usually around age 10-12.

5. One of main functions of berdaches is ceremonial roles, acting out performances; the author notes the cross-cultural tendency of gays toward theater, stage, acting roles.

6. He says shamans do a lot by way of performance too, but they are therapists more than actors. The comment on status is especially interesting: shamanic status in native cultures is determined by how well the individual shaman can relate to the spirit world for the benefit of the community. The author notes that there is still male-male competition, as in “civilized” cultures, but that the content is not concerned with putting others down so much as seeking honor as one who most helps “the people to live”.

7. Although berdaches are not necessarily shamans, most have some shamanic power, a “speciality.” They are often sought after by shamans for advice. One of their major roles is that of naming young boys, with lucky and funny/gross secret names, which confer great future power on the youths. (Alas, no examples are given.)

8. The basic NA attitude towards berdaches is one of respect, as toward any other wakan phenomenon, and there is also a fear of their potentially destructive power. But neither attitude prevents egalitarian joking relationships on the part of relatives. And even though the berdache’s gayness is naturally an object of the jokes, it does not mean any disdain for him for that reason.

9. B’s are often called seers: they can see things from both male and females points of view, and are especially valued for that (just as anything different is valued as wakan in native cultures).

10. They see themselves as different, too, precisely in that they see things differently from others. (They emphasize that this “difference” is a separate thing from their being attracted to other males.) Their ability to “see” often allows them to be prophetic (in the narrow sense of being able to predict the future).

11. “When nature burdens a man it also gives him a power.” Besides naming and predicting the future, other common powers include having a central role in blessing ceremonies (as for example blessing the tree-pole for a sun dance) and offering spiritual protection. (That last I wasn’t clear about. I hope to go back to it.) (Later: No luck.)

12. In childhood, he experiences himself not so much as feminine as other, unique, more individual in his interests and concerns: more androgynous than feminine.

13. Westerns ask: “How did this kid get that way and what can we do to help him? ” Native peoples ask: “What has this wakan person to offer for the benefit of all of us?”

14. B’s tend to be highly intelligent, make good teachers (of older kids) and good care-givers of adults, the elderly, etc. They are better at most female work roles than woman (stronger, tire less quickly, not interrupted by monthly periods, etc.) Often make very good parents (of adopted children). Not good at early child care.

15. In terms of sexual activity, they always have the role of the “insertee” (rather than the “inserter”); they consider sex with another berdache to be (unacceptable) incest.

16. They are biologically male but female in many non-biological ways. They often emphasize cleanliness, personal looks, quality clothes, and interior decorating, “just like urban gays.” But they do not abandon the male competitive drive for prestige: they just seek it in ways other than hunting and raiding. At death they may be buried in female clothing, but on the male side of the cemetery.

17. Their non-macho form of manhood is greatly honored. They are in fact recognized as a “third gender,” while in our culture it leaves the individual open to tremendous stress. As does-- my whole point-- having a vocation to a shamanic personality.


The stone age present: how evolution has shaped modern life: from sex, violence, and languages to emotions, morals, and communities / by William F. Allman. (Simon & Schuster, c1994.)

SUBJECTS Genetic psychology. * Behavior evolution. * Human evolution.

This is a popular-audience book by a science writer. A good intro to a lot of important ideas. The section on “evolutionary medicine” is especially interesting.


The moral animal : evolutionary psychology and everyday life / Robert Wright.
SUBJECTS Sociobiology. * Genetic psychology. * Human behavior. * Behavior * evolution.

This is an extremely interesting set up: Contemporary Darwinian-social biology ideas explained by examples from the life of C. Darwin. I enjoyed this book a lot.


The evolving self : a psychology for the third millennium / Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (HarperCollins Publishers, c1993.)
SUBJECTS Genetic psychology. * Behavior evolution. * Social evolution.

Lots of good clear ideas here about memes.


AUTHOR Lappe, Marc.
TITLE Evolutionary medicine : rethinking the origins of disease PUBLISHER San Francisco : Sierra Club Books, c1994.
SUBJECTS Diseases -- Causes and theories of causation. * Environmentally induced diseases. * Environmental health. * Human evolution.

This is written in unnecessarily clinical/academic-- and unreadable-- style. A big disappointment. Just not fun.



Despite the lack of even the slightest evidence of editorial responsibility on the part of the publishers, and the utterly atrocious style of the author, this is a fascinating book. Indeed, I think it might be said to be an important book.

I know of no other text which has tried to deal with shamanism and Orthodoxy. And beyond that, of no other text which has attempted, as this one has, to set out so explicitly Patristic texts concerning the early (pre-dualistic and Augustinian) Christian perspectives on nature and the created world.

Alas, I can’t tell what the author’s purpose is. I think this is essentially a sociology text, but I’m not really sure. Certainly it is a demonstration of erudition, and I guess we can’t expect much more in terms of reader-friendliness from an Oxford PhD thesis. And the author’s typical Orthodox xenophobic hostility (extended here even to the Orthodox Church in America) is laughable. But there’s gold in this pile of bullshit!

What struck me most was that, with some reference to Jungian perspectives on images and archetypes, the core of this book could be a major contribution to 21st century understanding of religious experience. It could go a long way toward the recovery, both inside and outside the churches, of what once was the experience of “everyone, everywhere.”

And it could be invaluable for supplying the foundations of a 21st century environmental spirituality that would be simultaneously both Christian/Patristic and human/paleolithic.

Personally, I especially enjoyed the description of the hunter’s reverence for the bones of the game animals as atonement, “restoring harmony” (pp 120-121). And the author’s quotes: of M. Eliade’s observation that sighing and tears are a central motif of Pascha: “All nature sighs, awaiting the Resurrection;” and of Dostoyevsky’s “all creation, all creatures ... weep to Christ.” (Helps me to make a little better sense of my present calling.)

The author’s mention of English terms used to translate “ecstasy” is enlightening. In Psalm 115, when David exclaims, “I said in my ecstasy...”, the King James bible says “haste,” and the Revised Standard Version uses “consternation.” Both say “madness” in place of ecstasy in translating Zachariah 12:4, and Peter’s ecstasy in Acts 10 and 11 becomes “a trance.” The author does an excellent job in spelling out what ecstasy really means, and does it-- remarkably-- without any reference to Jungian functions of consciousness or intuition. I especially like his definition of shaman as one who is in touch with the powers of the world and so can do extraordinary things.


AUTHOR Angela, Piero, 1928-
TITLE The extraordinary story of human origins / Piero and Alberto Angela; translated from the Italian by Gabriele Tonne ; illustrations by
       Valter Fogato.
PUBLISHER Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1993.
SUBJECTS Man -- Origin. * Human evolution.

This contains some neat drawings. I shared them with the HS Science Club.


The tribal self : an anthropologist reflects on hunting, brain, and behavior / Ron Wallace. University Press of America, 1991.

This is a gem of a book: barely 150 small sized pages, large type, each essay hardly more than three or four pages maximum, each dealing with some aspect of human behavior from the point of view of brain functioning and anthropological data about human evolution. No jargon; just down to earth comments and thoughts.

A few of the ideas that stayed with me:

1. Focusing one’s attention and classifying or categorizing things is a pleasurable, possibly even addictive, behavior. The brain actually releases opiates when we do such things. (Reason seems to be the need for quick attention to calls for scavenging in humanity’s early pre-hunting phase, and competent and quick classification of other creatures also competing for the same scavenging opportunity.)

2. In contrast to feminist views, male are indeed different and in fact fragile (as the more expendable sex, more subject to evolutionary experimentation; thus, for example, there are more male geniuses but also more retarded males, etc.) “Sperm is cheap.”

3. Related: males have been split within themselves for millions of years by the need to be “gentle at home but tough ‘out there.’”

4. Woman tend to fight a lot among themselves, and because they tend to focus on family, even when they have positions of power do not contribute much socially. (Biological reason seems to be that females in hunting cultures-- and earlier anthropoid societies-- come from outside the small hunting band and thus do not instinctively promote the survival of genes found there, other than their own. In contrast, the males in the band have to be biologically related and stay together to know one another well, for success/survival in the hunt.)

5. Clearest description I’ve ever seen of biological cause of gayness. The fetal transformation of the basic female-form into male, which takes place around 6th week of fetal development, and which is determined by presence of male-chromosomes in zygote, is clearly distinguished from the process by which drive for mating with opposite sex is established, around 3rd month of pregnancy. The hormones which affect this instinctive drive are suppressed in fetuses of women exposed to major environmental stresses; the result is a normally care-giving, but non-reproducing male: an evolutionary survival strategy. (The process is verified by animal research, and studies of mothers of gay sons indicate a large proportion indeed claim to have been subject to major stresses during the pregnancy.) Fascinating!

6. Of great personal interest are the author’s comments concerning the shamanic world view. Just as we have the capacity for language wired into our brains, with the details (of given languages) coming from our cultural situation, so he says we also have wired into our brains basic myth patterns, again with the specific forms (particular spirit-powers, gods) coming from our cultural situation. The “patterns” emerge into consciousness during “ceremonies” (specifically via drumming, he notes) and are thus available for healing, etc. He conclusion is amazing: “While all this no doubt really works, we should leave it alone. We should honor it by having nothing to do with it, because it requires a sacred world view, from which we have come too far to go back. We should stick with our sterile secular stethoscopes.” [Note added 2012: What an amazing example of the modern world's fear of the sacred!]


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