“The basis of optimism is sheer terror” – Oscar Wilde
I’m not a “glass is half-empty” kind of guy. It’s not that I think the glass is half-full either. I think it’s the wrong question. My first question is whether the water is poisoned. Sort of invalidates other considerations. That’s why the recent archaeological announcement regarding the discovery of colossal 8000 year-old earthworks on the steppes of Kazakhstan doesn’t have me musing about ancient aliens, advanced Neolithic civilizations, or a revision of human history. Well, it inevitably does because that’s how I roll, but my mind immediately jumps to a more fundamental and existentially frightening conundrum. What were they scared of?
Stone Age (10,000 – 2,000 B.C.) Kazakhstan has long been believed to have been sparsely occupied by nomadic pastoralists. The steppes of Central Asia have a lot of elbow room, so unless you have a hankering for world domination and a good horse (horses are said to have been first domesticated in the region, obviously due to the vast distances involved in getting anywhere in Kazakhstan), your neighbors were likely a safe distance away. Excellent zoning in the Neolithic steppes. Given, the Neolithic revolution saw a significant population boom, with estimates of world population hovering at a few million souls in 10,000 B.C., and increasing to almost 300 million at the turn of the common era, but experts assure me this is actually not that rapid an increase given how out of control with the reproduction we would get after that. Obviously, the tough pastoralists of the wind-swept steppes didn’t care much what we would think of them, since they neither kept written records nor used social media, and so the first time we hear about them is from their raids into Zhou China in the 8th Century B.C. and 7th Century forays across the Caucasus Mountains which brought them into contact with the loquacious Greeks, who simply referred to anybody originating in the region from the Caucasus to Siberia as Scythians.
Now, perhaps our ancestors made massive geoglyphs simply because they looked cool, but experts appear to concur that rather than Nazca-esque geoglyphs with no discernible purpose in our modern idiom, the recent discoveries in Kazakhstan were clearly a set of highly defensible mounds, trenches, and ramparts. You know, the kind of stuff that’s useful when you want to discourage a gang of unruly barbarians or fearsome monsters from evicting you with extreme prejudice. Everybody understands that your garden variety nomad tends to get a little stir crazy, thus it’s hard to conceive of why enough of them would get together in a specific location for a long enough time to erect an astonishingly large fort in the Turgai region of northern Kazakhstan. Unless that is, they found themselves under imminent threat from an overwhelming force bent on raping, pillaging, and burning things in the best traditions of barbarian invasion. The question thus becomes, what could have struck such fear in the heart of the stalwart Scythians?
We can puzzle over whether precursors to the Mahandzhar culture that flourished in the region between 7000-5000 B.C. were ultimately responsible, ponder the religious significance that some of the spicier symbols used, and muse about how poorly we understand the capabilities and social organization of Stone Age man in Central Asia, but might I suggest that mortal terror is a great motivator? It remains to be seen what archaeological investigations in Kazakhstan turn up, but let’s face it, if a bunch of itinerant nomads decide it’s time to circle the wagons and dig in, it probably wasn’t because the nearest neighbors were playing their music too loud and thieving their goats. A more charitable view of the human race might suggest that these massive earthworks represent the possibility that the positive capacity of human cooperation extends further into the past than previously imagined. This seems highly unlikely, as observed by 5th Century B.C. Greek poet Aristophanes when he commented, “Men of sense often learn from their enemies. It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls and ships of war”.