Science Fiction in Prehistory

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 2, 2018

It is my belief that Homo sapiens have been cognitively the same for the entire lifetime of our species. Sure, cavemen could not pass an ACT test today, but then we couldn’t pass a hunting and gathering IQ test if we traveled back to their time. I need to make that assumption because I want to also assume our cognitive tool for speculation that we call science fiction today has always existed in us.

Think of fiction as a spectrum with pure fantasy to the left and absolute realism to the right. When ancient storytellers narrated their tales sometimes they wanted their audience to believe exactly what they’re saying, sticking close to remembered details as possible. Other times, they make everything up and the audience knew it was all supposed to be make-believe. Science fiction lies in the middle of the spectrum, where the storyteller is making things up, but also wanting their audience to consider some ideas possible. They were speculating that something could happen or be discovered. They used known quantities to suggest other things are possible even though the idea is currently fantasy.

Noahs Ark

One of the best examples that go back into prehistory is building an ark to survive the great flood. Humans knew about floods. It’s my contention that the first storyteller to suggest building an ark to protect people and animals from a flood was using their cognitive abilities for creating science fiction. The story of Noah’s ark is how the story has survived prehistory, but we know it existed in earlier ages. It’s a fantastic idea for a story. It involves super-technology and the apocalypse, two major themes of modern science fiction. Plus, it shows humans trying to outwit fate, a kind of hubris against nature. Even the more modern version of Noah’s ark adds the helping hand of a superior being not from Earth. How does that story differ from modern science fiction that imagines aliens from space coming to save humans from a world-destroying disaster?

What I’m claiming is humans have always had this capacity to imagine wild possibilities they hoped to avoid or make to come true. We call it science fiction today, but this ability to speculate is an innate quality that’s always existed in the species. The trouble is science fiction speculation from prehistory has come down as accepted belief, and not theory. People forgot the original idea was a “What if?” proposal and not fact. Imagine if after our civilization collapses and thousands of years into the future people believe stories about invaders from Mars or time travelers from our times were true and H. G. Wells is deemed a prophet.

I’m quite sure early humans asked, “What if there are unseen beings that do things we can’t.” We can do things that animals can’t, so it’s not much of an extrapolation to imagine there are beings that can do things we can’t. Plus, early humans could do things that animals couldn’t perceive us doing, like set traps. Speculating about gods, fairies, ghosts, angels, demons, God, etc., are a kind of science fiction. Religious people consider them dogma now, and scientific thinkers dismiss them completely, but at one time such beings were part of speculative fiction, just theoretical brainstorming, the kind of hypothesizing that science fiction does today.


Trojan horse 2

Prehistory humans used this ability for all kinds of inventions. Think of the Trojan Horse. Another example of applied imagined technology. It’s a killer gimmick for an ancient story plot. It’s doubtful that such feat of trickery was ever built. It’s hard to believe Trojans would have been fooled. But it’s a great idea, and one people would love to believe is possible. And it’s exactly the kind of plot solution a science fiction writer would use.

The problem with prehistory is in its very definition. Prehistory is history before writing, but from a time we can only speculate about from physical artifacts, archeology, anthopology, DNA, pattern analysis of languages, studying the existing hunting and gathering cultures, and assuming the earliest stories at the beginning of history came down from oral prehistory. If we read enough origin stories from all over the world, we begin to see patterns in how people thought about explaining reality with speculative thinking. Science fiction uses the current models of science and technology to imagine possibilities that science and technology haven’t discovered or invented. I think it’s easy to see we’ve always done that. At the dawn of science, philosophers and science fiction writers compared the universe to clocks. Later writers compare the workings of nature to steam engines. We compare them to computers. Is it such a stretch to think citizens of prehistory lack the same ability to speculate?



6 thoughts on “Science Fiction in Prehistory”

  1. I’ve said before that the roots of modern SF can be found in our earliest writings.It’s part of a continuing literary tradition.SF was formerly of the whole body of fiction,rather than being something entirely separate,but it was still different.It’s a fictional form that became a branch of literature.It can be found in the earliest myths that speculated about the world and self,which were also among the first attempts at storytelling and writing.

    The first actual novels and pieces considered to be SF,were written much later,but It’s difficult to think what it would have been like if it hadn’t been condensed into a genre.

  2. I agree – I think that the human imagination and an ability to conceive of the fantastic – which, in effect, sci-fi is – has been a constant throughout for humanity as a species. What’s more, I think it has the power to capture societies. Some of the monolithic structures built over the millennia, such as Stonehenge, smack of a vast diversion of labour and resource by comparison with the effective economic scale of the societies that built them. At this broadest level, sci-fi (as an exercise in conceptualising the unseen and unimagined) and the belief systems that fed into some of the other ways in which pre-historic societies clearly expressed their imaginations and thoughts, essentially represent different expressions of the same ability to conceptualise. So yes – sci-fi is perhaps one of the oldest expressions of human imagination.

  3. Your point about people in prehistory having about the same intelligence is a very good one, but you abandon it too early when you claim that modern science is free of fantasy. Theories we have now will one day be seen as ridiculous, even as they are worshipped today. No one can say how much the prehistory stories were entirely believed. They served their purpose to give meaning. Shepherds on mountainsides pondered the stars but without literacy had no way to propagate their insights—share them with future generations or anyone just over the horizon.

    The prehistoric world was their world, what they could see and feel and imagine, just as it is now. You speculate on true believers but exempt those of modern education as if they are not bound by the same hubristic limitations. Knowing twice as much (or orders of magnitude more) about infinite expanding space doesn’t close the relative gap on what we do not know. I’ve heard scientists say we know 90% of what there is to know, than admit not knowing what dark matter or energy are—which they’ll tell us makes up the vast majority of everything. Certainly we do not know what we do not know. Yet we declare that what we know is all that matters … just they way the ancients did.

    People today, modern people in a world of scientific reason, believe that space aliens helped us build the pyramids, abduct humans, influence our daily lives. How different is that from fantasy? People grope in the unknown for meaning, now the same as they did then, and fill in information to comfort them in their insecurity.

    The story of a great flood is probably true. The world that the storyteller knew was flooded in its entirety. The story exists in many cultures in many different locations. I believe either a great story traveled after a great flood, or the survivors traveled to spread it far and wide to areas they believed must have also been flooded. The ark story ends with Noah’s sons dispersing to corners of the world. Some scientists speculate that the flood was the filling of the basin of the Black Sea.

    The truth remains out there.

    1. Keith, I need to reread my piece and even edit it if I suggested that modern science fiction is without fantasy. I believe 99.9% of science fiction is fantasy. Then and now. Very little of speculative/science fiction pans out, but then most scientific hypotheses fail too.

      Both prehistory and now are full of nonsense and silly what-ifs That’s the thing about reality, it’s so hard to perceive. We’re not rational creatures, but rationalizing beings who will distort any input for personal gain, entertainment, or just delusion.

      I’ve read that the flood stories probably came from the rising seas after the last ice age. There was never a flood that covered all the lands of Earth, but lots of major flooding all over the world. I’m sure stories about it were passed on for thousands of years. The idea of the ark is a wonderful one. The writers of The Bible just adapted these for their use.

      By the way, I saw a clever hunch about the Garden of Eden on Nova years ago. The Book of Genesis describes it’s location by several rivers. Searchers have never found it by that description. But when scientists created maps of the area with the seas lowered because of the preceding ice age, they found the riverbeds using satellite photo data. There is both fact and fiction in The Bible that give us clues to prehistory.

    1. And if you think about it, Noah’s Ark is like the first generation ship story. It’s only for forty days (by one account) but it does bridge one generation of humans between the old world and the new.

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