÷tziís violent worldNATIONAL POST
In an odd way, as secular scientists explore our past with ever more powerful technologies, they seem to be finding the last thing they must have expected ó empirical support for a variety of Original Sin.
His corpse was discovered by tourists in September, 1991, lying facedown in a glacier at an elevation beyond 10,000 feet in Europe’s Ötztal Alps. He was in such an excellent state of preservation that he was at first thought to be a victim of the First World War, whose soldiers sometimes still turn up in the ice of the Tyrolean highlands. But it soon transpired that the five-foot-tall Ötzi had died on a spring day in about 3300 BC. Humanity had recovered an incalculably important artifact of its prehistoric past — the oldest known intact, naturally preserved body. And on Wednesday of last week, the noninvasive medical imaging of our century allowed anthropologists to do for Ötzi what we would expect to have done for ourselves, and announce a forensically established cause of death.
In some ways Ötzi has been a symbol of strictly modern human folly. He would find it hard to understand the symbolic controversy that arose briefly between two nations because of the awkward location, slightly on the Italian side of the border with Austria, where he slept for five millennia. And he would probably have trouble comprehending the bitter legal battle, still ongoing, over the finder’s fee awarded to his civilian discoverers by an Italian court. But it’s clear that Ötzi did not live in a world free from conflict. Soon after he was found, his scientific guardians discovered that he was carrying an arrowhead embedded deep below his left collarbone. That wound is now thought, on the basis of blood surrounding the arrowhead, to have killed him by severing his subclavian artery.
It is thought that a companion probably pulled the shaft of the fatal arrow out of Otzi’s shoulder during a fierce fight with rival hunters, shepherds or scavengers. (He had a defence wound on his thumb that must have been inflicted at around the time of death, and his clothing and gear was covered in blood identifiable as belonging to several other people.)
All this allows us to position Ötzi pretty firmly within a world of semi-organized, premeditated violence between human groups. He can no longer be considered a possible victim of ritual sacrifice, as many of the best-preserved later prehistoric mummies are thought to have been. He died fighting like hell.
And that has some heavy implications for our view of ourselves. Man has always had a tendency to look back on his pre-agricultural ancestors as living in a time when the world was freer, less crowded, and by implication more peaceful. For much of the 20th century anthropologists held to a general view that prehistoric societies were less violent than our own. They were influenced in this by colleagues’ romanticized accounts of hunter-gatherer cultures, whose intertribal clashes were seen as highly stylized combinations of drama and frontier maintenance. Abuse of natural resources was regarded as one of our fallen, civilized characteristics. (Indeed, “civilization” became something of a dirty word.) After all, ancestors who lived in “harmony” with nature would have had no reason to consciously fight destructive wars over scarce resources.
This sentimental view — which has consistently perverted our understanding of Canada’s own aboriginal cultures — is no longer tenable. Human prehistory from Greenland to Easter Island is now regarded not as a state of carefully tended balance between humans and their environment, but as a cycle of brutal resource depletions and human tribal extinctions. Our own Arctic carries traces of possible genocide in a period that lies disturbingly close to first contact with Europeans. As the linguist and philosopher of science Steven Pinker observed in a March article for the New Republic: “quantitative body-counts-such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axe marks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men-suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own … If the wars of the 20th century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.”
For Mr. Pinker, this is to some degree a gospel of optimism. Our decreasing willingness to contemplate and countenance violence, reflected in everything from our growing respect for animal life to our intensifying distaste for capital punishment, seems like a miracle when contrasted with the habitual cruelty of even our immediate forefathers, who baited bears for fun and enjoyed judicial hangings as though they were Disney movies. But it also undermines our faith that the evolutionary conditions under which we developed as a species predispose us to peace and quiet.In an odd way, as secular scientists explore our past with ever more powerful technologies, they seem to be finding the last thing they must have expected — empirical support for a variety of Original Sin.
The Editors. "Ötzi’s violent world." National Post, (Canada) June 11, 2007.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Copyright © 2007 National Post
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