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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mystery of the Squiggly Lines



After visiting Dom Pedro, I made my way to Sackler Gallery. Strolling from the ancient Arabian and Iranian collections to the ancient Chinese and Indian collections, an inevitable observation emerged: We are the same people. How can we not be? Who else, from the Neanderthals in Europe to the Homo floresiensis on Indonesian islands, ever engaged these impractical and meaningless activities? Look at the squiggly lines, repeated dots, and neatly organized markings on pots and pans and dishes and wheels. Look at the drawings flowers, animals, water, the sun and moon, and human bodies. Look at the mixture of colors. What is the use of carving patterns onto a vessel that holds water or wine? Do they make the liquid taste better? And the imitation of flowers and lion heads on plates and dishes, do they make the food more nutritious? There is no practical use for these little "extra touches." And don't get me started on those little colorful beads, stones, shells, and glittering metals. You can't eat them, hunt or gather food with them, cure diarrhea with them, or have more babies with them. Yet they quickly became this all-important thing called "currency" and were traded for all kinds of critical supplies like food and clothes and houses. Everyone did this, all over the world, instinctively and spontaneously, without fighting a few wars or at least holding some meetings to come to an agreement. We couldn't help ourselves.

We are so used to our own behavioral patterns that we take it for granted. Sure, everyone does this, everyone thinks this way. It's so natural that we don't realize how damned bizarre it is. Nobody else does this. No other animals nor our ancient cousins of the Homo genus has shown any interest in seemingly useless symbols. Sure, Neanderthals and Cro-magnons experimented with making and using tools like stone knives and hammers. Even certain smart animals, like ravens, can use tools. But we, modern Homo sapiens, from 100,000 years ago till now, are positively obsessed about abstract representations of concrete, tangible objects and events. For no apparent, practical reason whatsoever, people just began drawing and painting with bright colors on walls of caves in southern Africa. We are not satisfied with a bowl that can hold water and food. We are not content with a piece of animal skin or cloth that can keep us warm. We have to make them pretty. We have to keep the past alive by painting symbols on clay. We have to carve people's faces and bodies into stone, so that we can imagine they are still alive when they're really dead.

So here is the answer to the existence of art, stories, music, language, consciousness, love, the pursuit of happiness, and all this seemingly useless crap. It was probably an accident that we began to convert tangible, concrete thoughts into abstract ideas and play with them as if they were real. We live in our mind and our dreams of symbols. Weird, isn't it? And, somehow, after all, this obsession with the abstract and symbolic is probably the biggest reason that this little tribe spread throughout the world like wildfire, squeezing out and obliterating at least six cousin species who had survived pretty successfully in their settlements as well as many, many other animals. This is what makes us human. 

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