LAIRD SCRANTON — CHINA’S COSMOLOGICAL PREHISTORY — 2014
First of all, we have to define what cosmology is and there is a lot of debate about it. Here is the introduction to the long article published in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Philosophy of Cosmology,” First published on Tuesday, September 26, 2017:
“Cosmology (the study of the physical universe) is a science that, due to both theoretical and observational developments, has made enormous strides in the past 100 years. It began as a branch of theoretical physics through Einstein’s 1917 static model of the universe (Einstein 1917) and was developed in its early days particularly through the work of Lemaître (1927). As recently as 1960, cosmology was widely regarded as a branch of philosophy. It has transitioned to an extremely active area of mainstream physics and astronomy, particularly due to the application to the early universe of atomic and nuclear physics, on the one hand, and to a flood of data coming in from telescopes operating across the entire electromagnetic spectrum on the other. However, there are two main issues that make the philosophy of cosmology unlike that of any other science. The first is,
“The uniqueness of the Universe: there exists only one universe, so there is nothing else similar to compare it with, and the idea of “Laws of the universe” hardly makes sense.
“This means it is the historical science par excellence: it deals with only one unique object that is the only member of its class that exists physically; indeed, there is no non-trivial class of such objects (except in theoreticians’ minds) precisely for this reason. This issue will recur throughout this discussion. The second is
“Cosmology deals with the physical situation that is the context in the large for human existence: the universe has such a nature that our life is possible.
“This means that although it is a physical science, it is of particular importance in terms of its implications for human life. This leads to important issues about the explanatory scope of cosmology, which we return to at the end.” [Smeenk, Christopher and Ellis, George, “Philosophy of Cosmology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/cosmology/]
The author of the book I am going to examine starts with a very clear objective that is identified as “cross-cultural linguistic analysis” to find the cosmological vision embedded in old cultural, mythological, philosophical and religious productions in this case of China compared to those of three other cases, the Dogons in black Africa, today mostly living in Burkina Faso and Mali; the ancient Egyptians; a minority group of ancient Tibetans known as Na-Khi [The Nashi are believed to be descendants of Proto-Qiang, an ethnic group living in the Tibetan plateau. The Nashi people were known as Mosha-yi during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Frequently harassed by other tribes, the Proto-Nakhi moved to the banks of Nujiang River then to the Along River in the present-day Sichuan Province. They finally settled at Baisha and Lijiang areas in 3 CE. This makes them little representative of Buddhism since “he first diffusion of Buddhism began in the early 7th century, in the reign of King Srongbtsan sGam-po. Buddhism, however, did not come to dominate the religious sentiments of Tibetans until the ninth or tenth centuries.” Ihttps://www.worldatlas.com/articles/who-are-the-nakhi-people.html and John Vincent Beluezza, http://www.tibetarchaeology.com/pdf/Bellezza-Kailash_Vol.19_1-2.pdf]; and ancient Chinese. The objective of the author is to show that these four ancient cultures share the same cosmology.
Two remarks have to be done from the very start.
First, it only concerns civilizations that developed between 2,000 and 1,500 BCE based on real artifacts and written productions from this period, except the Dogons because they did not have any writing system until the very recent colonial period. In this case, it is stated that what was collected in the 1930s and 1940s by French colonial agents represented what the Dogons elaborated in the distant period of 2,000–1,500 BCE, which is obviously very tentative. A similar reserve is to be made about the Na-Khi who cannot really be classified as representative of the Tibetans nor of Buddhism. This first remark shortens the approach in time. It concerns only the recent period some 2,000 years after the official invention of writing by the Sumerians around 3,500 BCE, today proved as having had precursory forms with tablets found in what is today Romania and dating back to 6,000 BCE. The author actually refers to Gobekli Tepe and its carved stones representing animals and he dates this site as having been built around 10,500 BCE, which is one thousand years earlier than what is currently accepted, but dating is a real problem at times. This time period examined by the author positions the cultural elements he studies something like 10,000 years after the beginning of the development of agriculture and herding, hence in a period when humanity was entirely engaged in this new civilization based on agriculture and herding, developing complex religious and mythological visions and evolving towards a monotheistic religion that started with the Zoroastrians (not quoted by the author) and developed into Judaism that will evolve eventually into Christianity and Islam. This at once brings up a problem since the Dogons are Black Africans from Western Africa. They resisted enormously against the Islamization of the Mali Empire in the 13th century which made them easy prey for the slave trade that existed already several thousand years BCE around the Mediterranean Sea. That positions the approach in pre-pharaonic Egypt, which enables the author never to mention the pyramids — which would have led him to wonder how similar pyramidal constructions could have appeared in Meso-America and as proved today by satellite pictures in the Amazonian rainforest. His non-examining the Sumerian period and development, hence the role of Babylon long before Pharaonic Egypt, makes his approach very debatable. Of course then the reference to Tibetan Na-Khi civilization and what’s more the Chinese Daoist culture and philosophy appear as totally cut off from this center of ancient Egypt. How can these various civilizations be connected?
Obviously, the author cannot answer because he does not consider the out-of-black-Africa migrations that all took place before the Ice Age and were finished by 45,000 BCE. He could then have considered that the Egyptians and all Semitic people of northern Africa and the Middle East were the descendants of the first migration around 200–180,000 BCE. He could have considered the second migration that concerned all the isolating language people of Asia, Tibetans, and Chinese, that took place somewhere around 150–120,000 BCE. And we know today that all Asian people encountered the Denisovans in that migration, what’s more, the Eastern Asian populations (Chinese and Japanese) encountered these Denisovans twice: once when they arrived and a second time later on, which makes these populations different from Southeast Asian and Melanesian people who have met the Denisovans only once. He would have had to consider the third migration that brought the agglutinative languages to the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe (note he considers Mongolia and Kazakhstan without mentioning that they are speaking languages that have nothing to do with the Sino-Tibetan languages of the Na-Khi, Tibetans and Chinese). This third migration took place around 80–75,000 BCE, with a second wave around 55–50,000 BCE that will remain on the Iranian Plateau to move after the Ice Age (peak at 19,000 BCE) to the West and Europe (Indo-European people and languages) and top the East and the Indian sub-continent (Indo Aryan people and languages). That would have led him to consider the basic differences between the languages of the people he is speaking of, which he does not do. The Dogons are speaking a black African class language which is a synthetic-analytical language (family of languages) of the Niger-Congo branch of the Bantu languages, and of the same linguistic development as Indo-European and Indo-Aryan languages that all have integrated the basic communicational syntax in the deeper layer of the langue of these languages. The Ancient Egyptians spoke a Semitic language which is a root language that only has roots as basic units and develops “words” in discourse and not in langue: note he will systematically speak of words which are not the roots but derived spatial or temporal discursive units he seems to consider as nouns and verbs, which could be discussed. And of course, he should have wondered about the language of Gobekli Tepe that I would consider as agglutinative, though the Indo-Europeans were already on the move down from the Iranian plateau. He could have enriched his “yurt” study in Turkey, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Siberia by clearly identifying it as a construction of the agglutinative Turkic people concerned here. Finally, he could have considered the Na-Khi, Tibetans and the Chinese in their isolating languages that have “words” specified in spatial and temporal categories, often reduced to western appelations like nouns and verbs, but that are invariable rejecting all the syntax outside langue and in discourse.
But that leads me to the second basic remark to be made before entering more details. The author compares what he calls words, at times roots, used as such in the various civilizations he considers. Linguistically he has a methodological problem. To say that this word or root in Chinese looks like or is similar to this word in Dogon, and that is the author’s basic method, comparing lexical items of the various languages and showing how they are close to one another, does not prove there is any connection between them. To be similar does not mean to be related. To prove that, you have to show the route from one civilization to the other. It is obvious that the Chinese who are the descendants of the second migration I have mentioned have nothing to do and no connection with Ancient Egyptians who are the descendants of the first migration, and even less with the Dogons who are the direct descendants of the original black African Homo Sapiens who moved on their own in what was called the Sudan that was the sub-Saharan tropical zone from the Indian Ocean, to the Atlantic. Linguistically, when we see such similitudes and when these similitudes are attached to similar semantic referential meanings we do not state there is a connection between these units that are standing far apart in all possible ways, but we state there is a common source. That is the normal reasoning in biology and in linguistics. In biology that’s Darwin’s approach to the evolution of species and in linguistics it is essentially represented by Joseph Greenberg who is an American linguist and anthropologist who stated for the first time that all languages in the world had only one origin in black Africa, and that idea started the development of the theory about the migrations of Homo Sapiens out of black eastern and southern Africa. And we know that because only Homo Sapiens who have been living since the beginning in this Black Africa and have had no contact with Neanderthals and Denisovans do not have any genetic heritage from these cousins of ours. All other Homo Sapiens on the planet have that genetic heritage that could only be met outside Africa.
My point is then that Scranton’s method is not acceptable linguistically, and that his conclusion that similar “words” in these different civilizations are connected as if they had been exchanged or borrowed is wrong. But these “words” do have connections but not directly via borrowing or exchange but because they have a common origin, a very distant origin in black eastern and southern Africa, Ancient Egyptian “words” around 200,000 BCE, Dogon words in complete continuity with the rest of black Africa, the Mongolian and Kazakhs around 80,000 BCE, and the Na-Khi and Chinese around 150,000 BCE. That should have brought him to the simple conclusion that if these lexical units or concepts have been kept in spite of these temporal distances it is because they were essential in the cosmological vision Homo Sapiens developed in black eastern and southern Africa starting around 300,000 BCE (a new discovery in Kenya pushes that date to 320,000 BCE). I will even say this cosmology was the central mental construction of Homo Sapiens before they started their migrations, and the various migrations in time will produce differences because they started at different times in evolution among Homo Sapiens in black Africa and because the conditions and circumstances in the regions where they settled were different, and in the recent period the author considers here, they have been obliged to go through and survive the Ice Age, the rising of waters by 120 meters, about one meter per century between 12,000 BCE and year ZERO, and the development of agriculture and herding, then devise, design, construct and adapt to the building of permanent settlements, cities, etc. In that same period, they also changed the division of labor that was mostly sexual up to this agricultural development, and introduced some forms of managed labor that could even lead to slavery based on the control — or property — of land.
Then we can point out some other remarks that are actually positive for some of them. The author saw interesting elements in what he calls commonalities. The function and shape of constructions: the granary for the Dogons; the unspecified though we can think of the pyramids (that are based only on a square pattern) for the Ancient Egyptians; the stupas of the Buddhists, which is by the way anachronic since Buddhism only developed one or two centuries after the death of Buddha in 483 BCE, hence totally out of the time slice considered by the author; the Mongolian yurt; and the Chinese well-field pattern and city layout. Note the reference of Gobekli Tepe is only about the carved animals. He mentions without enumerating them those that are common in other civilizations but he mentions those that are original to Gobekli Tepe but without specifying what they are. As Ferdinand de Saussure would say, the meaning of anything does not come from the similitudes between things but from the differences between items. This case here is typical of this pushing aside of the differences that can only be explained by the distance from original black Africa, the circumstances found in the areas where the people settle, and the survival strategies in front of the Ice Age and then the rising of waters and the development of agriculture and herding along with the remapping of the division of labor.
What are some of the most important conclusions that can be accepted and exploited?
1- The circular pattern visible in most constructions of these civilizations. Note the absence of this pattern from Egyptian pyramids and temples.
2- The square pattern visible in all these constructions and also visible in other human planning and structuring of human settlements in their environment.
3- The systematic coordination and articulation of the square pattern onto the circular pattern in a way or another, what the author calls the squaring of the circle. Note a mistake page 149 where he compares the circumference of a circle to the area of a square. You cannot compare the two since the circumference is in length units and the area of the square is in surface units. It is, of course, the area of the circle and the area of the square that are to be identical when a circle is squared or a square is “circled.”
4- The importance of cardinal orientation on the four basic cardinal points (N, W, E, S), or on the four intermediate cardinal points (NW, SW, SE, NE); the importance of the two horizontal axes N-S and W-E; the importance of the vertical axis in the center of the circle or the square, and he does not exploit it enough since zenith and nadir are essential in this spatial orientation.
5- The importance of the stars on which these cosmological remarks are based: Sirius for the Egyptian and the Dogons, with the remark that in both cases there is some mystery when referring to the satellites of Sirius, Sirius B and eventually Sirius C. Sirius is one of the most brilliant stars and thus the Egyptians could center there religious cosmology on it, but the two other Sirius are invisible without modern telescopes, and one of the two is only visible every sixty years (life expectancy is 29 years then and that implies the transmission of the observation over two if not three generations), the third one is debated by astronomers today. The author says that but does not question then the whole cosmological construction as not being the heritage from 3,000–3,500 years ago.
6- The importance of the sun and the moon, though he seems to insist more on the sun because of its transcription in a universal sign. Precisely a circle with a dot in the center. We know that this circle is one sign that has been identified as universal in cave paintings all over the world (one out of thirty-two as listed by Genevieve von Petzinger in 2017), and I could list all the Maya glyphs that integrate this figure as meaningful, often all by itself in a composite glyph.
7- The importance of animals is just as strong in all these cultures. We all know the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, based on a lunar calendar. And that is a shortcoming because the calendar is not studied clearly apart from the 360 days of the year plus five supplementary ones. This calendar is based on the sun, like the seasons but the months are based on the moon and the zodiac is based on the stars. Strangely enough the author studies the Chinese Zodiac but does not compare it to the Sumerian zodiac, for example, the zodiac with thirteen signs and not twelve, and the thirteenth sign is the serpent-bearer, Ophiuchus, still used in the Middle Ages in some Romanesque churches in Europe (Issoire for one, Saint Austremoine). Moon and sun are contradictory in many cultures.
8- He does not consider the human brain that receives impulses from the senses that it transforms into perceptions in which it discriminates patterns and identifies these in brain language. Then he could have gone further and seen that the brain constructs the mind in which these patterns will be stored and, since Homo Sapiens can develop articulated language, named, and the whole human adventure can start thanks to the pattern-discriminating power of the brain that leads to conceptualization, speculative knowledge, cognitive communication, religion, philosophy, science, and technology.
9- The author insists on the importance of some numbers like 4, 7, 8, 9. He associates four to the four quadrants of space due to the four basic cardinal points; to the four basic elements and the four stages of the Dogon metaphor of the construction of anything. He does not associate seven to the week that is often composed of ten days in those old civilizations, but with the seven stages — which interestingly enough are nine, page 85 — of creation. In fact, he does not go far enough with this number which is basic in many civilizations particularly the myth of Genesis (since he quotes the Hebrews a couple of times) that goes back thousands of years in the Sumerian and Zoroastrian domains, with the seven-day week that will become the Holy Week in Christianity. He identifies eight as essential among the Dogons and the eight ancestors, and in Daoism with the Yijing and the eight trigrams (note this brings in three but on the side since it is not three that is important but the eight figures built from a triad of three rectangles in one piece or cut in two (page 104). Note he gives on that page and page 97 two full representations that are not identical and that do not correspond to the representation in the front-cover illustration. Note too he does not explain the systematic use of the cutting of the basic rectangles in two halves from three full rectangles to three cut rectangles. In other approaches, eight is a sign of the divine or the sign of life and even eternal life. This is surely universal if we consider that eight leads to Nirvana, or Nibbana, in Buddhism, is the number of the second coming in all messianic religions of the Middle East, the number of the end, a reclining omega, that will bring the last judgment, doomsday, both the end of the material terrestrial present and the beginning of the messianic future. The author insists on nine as the very symbol of the equilibrium point between the circle and the square, the surrounding farmers and their central well or landowner base in the Chinese well-field pattern with a central square surrounded (encircled) by eight other squares, all of them building one composite square. Nine is the well, the landowner, the common group that controls all. We have there a vision of a world with a commanding level, at the center, and a commanded, controlled surrounding collectivity that has to accept the control of the center. This nine in the Middle East monotheistic religions developing there is the sign of the end of the world, the apocalypse, the beast, the dragon, the devil, etc. He is missing one number, 6, six, the number of wisdom that is nothing but three + three, one cone pointing upward and one cone pointing downward. He quotes Girardot page 24 that explains that at the beginning in Daoism the primordial abyss was an upright cone matched with a reversed cone, and page 25 he gives the representation of the two “thorns” of the Dogon unformed universe which is exactly the same representation. But these two cones or triangles become the symbol of wisdom, of equilibrium, of justice in the Middle East and the best representation of it is the star of David and the wisdom of Solomon.
10- The author’s approach of the turtle is interesting but once again he misses the universality of it by not mentioning the fact that the creation of the world for North American Indians is the emergence of a turtle island in the middle of the vast water immensity. The turtle is fundamental in Daoism and Chinese cosmology and the fact that the Northern American population will start arriving somewhere around 25,000 BCE from Siberia could explain the transfer of the turtle myth but once again we are dealing with things that have to be dated back by many ten thousand years if not several hundred thousand years.
11- The last but one remark is about the annoying use of phrases like “our plan of cosmology.” Either he refers to Homo Sapiens but then he is far from a universal approach of this cosmology. Or he uses the royal “we” which is irritating. Or he tries to include us in his hypotheses, and that is manipulative. The use of this royal “we” goes against the general tone that is supposed to be scientific, hence generic and not personalized.
12- The last remark is about the author’s reference to ancestors that are stated in all civilizations as having brought cognition, knowledge, tools, technology, science, etc. It is often made religious by stating these people, ancestors, masters, or whatever are of some divine essence. In fact it is the mark of the transmission from one generation to the next generation of this amount of knowledge elaborated over many generations and transmitted to the younger generations all the time. In the Indo-European tradition, there is one character (note it is a man, since we are after the agricultural re-mapping of the division of labor), the RSI, who is a sort of linguistic “technician” or “engineer” who controls language, the language of memory, the language of knowledge, the language of imagination, the language of communication with the spiritual world, etc. he is the man who carries all that knowledge from one generation to the next and guarantees there is no loss. He is only the ancestor because metaphorically he carries along all the knowledge elaborated and accumulated by the previous generations. And that is really sublimely important.
To conclude you have to be patient when reading this book because the author easily jumps from one culture to another, refers to things that are not actually provided because they are in a previous volume of a series of books he has published before. If you are patient and take time to read the pages and to highlight what is important you will come to interesting ideas, and the most important one is that Homo Sapiens developed as soon as he started emerging, on the basis of what the Hominins he was descending from provided him with, a speculative mind, a communicational articulated language, and a general vision of the world and universe based on the patterns his pattern-discriminating brain provided him with: shapes, numbers, disposition, layout, etc. It is also now proved that Homo Sapiens developed symbolical representations of concepts, ideas, referential items with signs that could be brought together both to describe the referential items and to provide some semantic elements about these items and the concepts behind. With his pattern-discriminating brain, his speculative mind and his communicational articulated language, Homo Sapiens was able to conquer the world and the universe and we are still living on and developing this heritage. Nothing has changed, except the fact that we — humanity — have developed weapons of mass destruction that we blackmail the world with all the time.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU