“Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done” – Robert A. Heinlein
In various abortive attempts at landscaping around the humble property I own north of New York City, I’ve tried my hand at building dry-stone (no mortar) rock walls. You want to be ready for the zombie apocalypse. Consequently, I’ve noted two important facts: (1) It’s a pain in the ass, and (2) if you have slightly more upper body strength, strategic planning capacity, and gumption than I do, it’s not the most complicated feat to achieve rudimentary results without getting a hernia. Thus, whenever I read about megalithic structures, unexplained feats of landscape engineering, and the construction savvy of ancient man, my first question is rarely how they went about the project, rather why?
Now, just because I’m getting too old for this shit doesn’t mean that some healthy Neolithic specimen of humanity needed alien assistance in putting together an impressive rock garden. With a relative lack of population density, the absence of zoning laws, and the limited Stone Age AirBnB market, anthropologists, when faced with odd instances of prehistoric architectural accomplishment, fall back on “religious significance”. Sure, every once in a while a god-king wants a pyramid or a bunch of nomads decide they need a union hall, but by and large, it seems like folks who probably had bigger daily concerns such as not getting eaten by a sabertooth tiger, surviving the latest weather catastrophe, and feeding the family certainly had the requisite skills and brain matter to draw up blueprints, but would probably need a practical reason for doing so on any large scale. Nobody is especially surprised when people who live near an encroaching desert start digging massive canals. Sometimes, even the idea that a structure was built for ritual purposes (like a great big stone circle in an indefensible position) or astronomical observation holds some water.
That’s why, when I hear that someone built miles worth of rock walls in the hills of San Francisco’s East Bay for no discernible purpose long before European colonization, and pre-dating even long-term native occupation, I start to worry that somewhere along the way we’ve missed an imminent threat. Referred to colloquially as the “Berkeley Mystery Walls”, the walls range from 1-5 feet tall and run in broken sections of a few yards to a half mile, some 50 miles from Berkeley to San Jose (and rumor has it there is a smattering of them north in Marin County). The walls are clearly very old, but they do not seem high enough to be defensive in nature, nor do they enclose anything, often situated in inaccessible places that would have required transport of stones that are sometimes as much as a ton from long distances away.
The first Spanish colonists in California reported that the walls already existed. When they questioned the local Ohlone Native Americans whose ancestors had occupied the land since about 4000 B.C. (as hunter-gatherers not known to have built permanent structures, let alone useless ones), they too said, according to their oral traditions, that the walls were already there when their ancestors took up residence. There seems to be little doubt in anybody’s mind that the walls are very old due to the fact that many have sunk deeply into the earth and become overgrown with plants. Basically nobody knows who built the walls or why, leading to a host of conspiracy theories about suppressed histories attributing them to anything from pre-European contact Chinese explorers to Lemurians abandoning their sinking continent. Oddly the walls to don’t seem to mark any known social, cultural, or political boundaries, or serve any practical purpose whatsoever. What’s even more puzzling, given the innumerable questions that have arisen regarding the origins of the walls, is that there is remarkably little interest in them and a stunning absence of serious archaeological investigation given the fact that in lieu of any clear conclusion as to their provenance, they hint tantalizingly at some lost civilization that really dug their monumental architecture.
Ohlone origin myths across tribal groups appear to concur on one element. Our world originated from the destruction and flooding of a previous world. This amuses us as folklore and in its correspondence to the nearly ubiquitous deluge myths of countless other cultures, but perhaps this is because it is existentially important for us to assume the world is as it always has been, history is a straight line progression, and natural law is immutable. How else could we justify our lofty position atop the Great Chain of Being? Famous logician Augustus de Morgan, in reviewing a lecture on “Mental Training” by Faraday in 1854 pointed out our strange smugness in declaring what can or cannot be, commenting “The natural philosopher, when he imagines a physical impossibility which is not an inconceivability, merely states that his phenomenon is against all that has been hitherto known of the course of nature. Before he can compass an impossibility, he has a huge postulate to ask of his reader or hearer, a postulate which nature never taught: it is that the future is always to agree with the past. How do you know that this sequence of phenomena always will be? Answer, because it must be. But how do you know that it must be? Answer, because it always has been. But then, even granting that it always has been, how do you know that what always has been always will be? Answer, I feel my mind compelled to that conclusion. And how do you know that the leanings of your mind are always towards truth? Because I am infallible, the answer ought to be: but this answer is never given”.
When faced with the improbable and unexplainable, we tend towards the antipodes of decisively declaring an impossibility or rudely ignoring evidence in front of us as if it is a mere amusement, rather than a challenge to our comfortable chronology. If we don’t look too closely at it, maybe it will go away. As Douglas Adams observed, “The impossible often has a kind of integrity which the merely improbable lacks”.