Not So Ancient History
Listening to a podcast I heard that May 18th was world museum day. I didn’t know it was a thing, but it made me reminisce about the “good old” days when I could pop into a museum whenever I wanted. I would pop into the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, whenever I had a few minutes to spare in between running errands or appointments (a benefit of living in a city where museums are free). It wasn’t because I love the paintings, a few yes, but most I was indifferent to, I paid visits to it as an exercise in perspective. I normally would head to the rooms with the oldest paintings I could get to given the time I had. I particularly liked portraits. I was always struck by how the people in those paintings, taking away their attire, look just like the people around me today. I would leave the Gallery thinking that we are exactly the same people as we’ve always been, and that our brains haven’t changed in thousands of years (as a friend loves to remind me). I ask myself, how can I expect our behavior to be different? Isn’t this why history always repeats itself? Isn’t this why we should pay more attention to history?
We are all inundated with theories about what caused the current pandemic and what the future holds, so to make sense of it all I turn to history. First stop, the late Bronze Age.
1177 BC to be exact! According to Eric Cline, professor of ancient history and archaeology at George Washington University, DC, this was the year when civilization collapsed. Why would an event that happened 3200 years ago be of interest right now? The Bronze Age was a time when the powerful and flourishing Egyptian, Hittite, Canaanite, Cypriot, Minoan, Mycenaean, Assyrian and Babylonian empires interacted in globalized trade and cultural exchanges, just like today. Cline hypothesizes that the demise of the Bronze Age empires was caused by a series of natural and man-made cataclysms. These disasters transpired over a period of a century but he picked 1177 BC as a hallmark date for when it happened. This collapse led to the disappearance of the Mycenaean, Minoan, Trojan, Hittite, and Babylonian cultures.
The list of the cataclysms Cline proposes sounds eerily familiar. On the man-made side, you have social systems breakdown: collapse of central administrative organization (think the UK, handling of Brexit and the current pandemic.There are also the US, Spain et.al.); disappearance of the traditional elite class (world now ruled by the so-called self-made tech billionaires such as Bezos and Zuckerberg instead of monarchs and to some extent bankers); collapse of the centralized economy (some would argue the UK leaving the EU is the start of its disintegration); and settlements shifts and population decline (during the Bronze Age large settlements that could be compared to our cities today became common. Now more people live in urban areas, 55%; countries like Japan’s population is declining while its elderly population is increasing, now at 28%). Combined with climate change, famines, droughts, and earthquakes. Yep! We’ve also got plenty of these too! And we are seeing an increasing number of natural disasters (by type) according to the international database of natural disasters based on data collected from 1900. “The total number of disasters shows a significant increase from 1960 onwards and what is most apparent is that the majority are ‘hydro-meteorological’ or weather and climate related.”
You will note that there is no mention of diseases in the list of stressors Cline provided. He says it doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, they just haven’t found evidence yet. Watch his full lecture on the topic here.
I recently finished reading the historical novel Segu. I normally avoid historical novels as I prefer non-fictionalized versions of history (even though they aren’t completely exempt from authors’ bias). But Maryse Conde, the author of Segu, came recommended in an excellent novel that I had previously read, and I had never read anything by a French Guadeloupe author before so I decided to try it. The novel starts in 1789 and follows the Traore family of the kingdom of Segu in Mali during the period of cross-Atlantic slave trade, the arrival of Europeans, and Islam. Conde masterfully gives life to historical events through the lives of characters from diverse cultures including the Fulani, Tukulor, Arab, English,and Brazilian. What has stayed with me the most, other than Conde’s dexterousness as a storyteller, is the role of fetish priests in the society of Segu.
During this period, as in many parts of Africa, fetish priests were sought out to help figure out and deal with the unknown–what the future may bring. It dawned on me that today in the West and globally, we still believe in fetish priests—but they are called futurists, financial analysts, economists, data scientists, etc. Unlike the soothsayers of Segu who use cowries, herbs and animal offerings, our modern day soothsayers use mathematical and algorithmic models. The priests of Segu can only hint at the arrival of strangers and are unable to see the devastation to come–the abduction of their people into slavery and/or their massacre in the name of Islam–nor can they prevent it. Did our modern day soothsayers see the Covid-19 pandemic coming? Well, some hinted at the possibility of a pandemic coming. Like the rich patriarch of the Traore family is known to do, Bill Gates held council with a group of prominent soothsayers at the 201 Event October 2019 to discuss a potential pandemic. Their recommendations certainly didn’t help our governments be better prepared, hence the implementation of a near-global lockdown.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 also known as the forgotten flu, or was until recently. Now we can’t stop talking about it! Why the high interest in the Spanish flu now? The similarity in severity–high mortality rate, estimated at 50 million and it is said to have infected a third of the world’s population at the time. Like Covid-19, though the Spanish flu has been synthesized and evaluated, the properties that made it so devastating are not well understood. With no vaccine to protect against influenza, infection control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical intervention such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings. We are doing exactly the same. The key difference (other than the elderly being more susceptible to Covid-19) is the implementation of a lockdown. In time historians and archaeologists will work out why the lockdown. You can find an example of an insightful discussion about the 1918 flu here
What is my perspective now? That life is a series of cycles, and no amount of soothsaying can predict when and where the cycles start or end. The best we can hope for is to have some level of preparation. How well prepared we are depends on how much attention we pay to the clues of history, NOT the promise of the future.