Every now and then, a discovery occurs that reveals the imaginative or knowledge-based shortcomings of those who made it, or who first respond to it and shape how others view it. The Ishango bone unearthed in 1960, a baboon fibula with 28 markings dating to the late Stone Age, is a perfect example. The artefact has passed into modern feminist lore, with apocryphal stories of irate professors throwing their hands up in frustration, saying: “Think! Who owned this, if it was a calendar? Does a non-menstruating man need a calendar of 28 days?”. A related reference is a riddle which hopefully no longer challenges anyone: “A boy and his father get into an accident. Both require surgery. So why did the surgeon look at the boy on the table and say, ‘I can’t operate on him. He’s my son!’?”
To return to ancient objects, new information on the sprawling geoglyphs in southern Peru known as the Nazca Lines has excited researchers. The geoglyphs were created over 2000 years ago either by carving the ground, or forming images using piled stones. If seen from a great height, they reveal geometric designs and outlines of plants and wildlife, including numerous birds. Some among these birds are now believed to have been non-native, which lends itself to many theories.
But in these speculations is some condescension, including about how the geoglyphs were designed. It’s not like pre-colonial Peruvians had hot air balloons, went one throwaway remark. Well, to quote a meme illustrated with the Easter Island colossuses and various pyramids: “Just because white people couldn’t do it doesn’t mean it was aliens.” Perhaps there is extraterrestrial intelligence out there. More immediately provable is human contempt for the intelligence of other humans. We rarely appreciate the sophistication of those whose cultures (and populations) were systematically erased. Even when we don’t see the world as we were taught to, we often express our visions through inherited and absorbed vocabularies.
While meditating recently, I saw a vulture, and one of my most disagreeable beliefs about myself surfaced – that my ability to look others’ mortality in the eye is not what makes me a good caregiver, but is in actuality unsentimental and calculating. And then the creature’s message came forth: “The vulture waits not for death, but for sustenance”. Suddenly, this was as obvious as the symbolism I’d unthinkingly internalised. Afterwards, recalling the archaeological site of Catal-Huyuk, I read about vulture excarnation as a human pre-burial ritual and the prevalence of skeletons without skulls there. These are mysterious because they don’t fit satisfactorily into tutored worldviews. Practical explanations are given, like: this is because burials beneath the house would smell less if stripped of flesh. But does that engage the emotional? It’s bereavement we speak of, not the disposal of spoilt food.
That gender bias riddle in which a surgeon is prevented from operating on her son invokes medical ethics based on emotion. This is a rare acknowledgment of how reason, like art and ritual, is also emotional. What if every hypothesis got the heart involved, and that what we hold privileged as the mind included the vast province of the imagination?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 27th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.