A couple of decades ago I had the pleasure and honor of being involved with the building of a model that proved how Stonehenge worked. In case you don’t know, Stonehenge is a very ancient stone circle in the south west of England. For a pretty ancient stone circle it’s in quite good condition.
The basic idea of Stonehenge (based on my understanding) was to help compute the position of the earth against the stars, planets, our moon and the sun, and from this information help early farmers to work out exactly when the best times would be plant crops and harvest them.
That might sound rather boring, but at a time when people didn’t know about the movement of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun, this was a fantastically important set of information to know.
You want your crops to be able to absorb the maximum amount of sunlight so that they grow as healthily as possible. If you plant too early or too late, the crops won’t do well, and if you harvest either too early or too late the crops won’t last as long. It’s really important and really hard to calculate the optimum timing.
The position of the stones in the circle actually allow for complex calculations to be made that deal with the fact that the earth wobbles on its axis over a multi-decade cycle. These stones were the culmination of hundreds of years of observation, many generations of early scientists, keeping careful records.
If you ever go to see Stonehenge or any of the myriad of other stone circles around Europe, you will notice that many of the stones have notches on the sides near the top. This talks to the extensive time they were used for. Because the star field we see from earth does change over the decades, and so the exact position of the stars as measured on the marks on the stones deals with this change. It’s small but really significant.
If you calculate the position of the star fields as they would have been thousands of years ago, you can calculate the exact time that the stone circle was originally erected and from the notches of the side exactly how long there were used for.
These calculations match up with the carbon dating results gathered from remains found under the circle. So are as close to perfect proof for the reasons for the stone circles as has ever been found.
If you accept this idea, then the following makes sense.
Imagine for a second how life was ten thousand or more years ago. The (relatively) few people who roamed the earth were nomadic hunters, who would forage the land for food. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Some families fed up with this life, tried to corral animals and farm crops. Some of these people were more successful than others. And through experience the most successful ones were able to tell their children how to farm and over the millennia these families started to live longer and grow more numerous. With each generation knowledge on how to farm was passed down. And it was noticed by some that the best times to plant crops were when the sun rose over a particular branch of a tree, and the best time to harvest was when the moon fell over another branch of another tree. It wasn’t a perfect system, but the small difference this knowledge made year after year, meant that these families become healthier, longer lived and grew larger.
Over time they noticed that the cycle of the earth was more complex and so they started to record (over years) more and more cyclic details, by measuring the positions of the stars, planets, the moon and the sun. And the more accurate they could calculate the seasons the better the crops would become.
Of course this meant that some people were spending all of their time doing these calculations, and not working the fields or looking after animals. This meant that they needed a series of rules about who would do what, so that as a team (or tribe) they could all achieve.
Other tribes would want this knowledge, so trade was needed to allow them to get what they needed without having to replicate the complex calculations. And fortifications and security was needed to ensure that the other tribes didn’t just come and take it by force.
So the basics of society as we know it today was formed with social roles, trade laws, police and armies, barter, education and knowledge sharing.
As the calculations being performed became more complex and the devices used grew from tree limbs, to wooden circles to eventually stone circles. The operators of these early computers took on priest-like importance to the people. And the payment to these priests became seen as gifts to the gods.
You can imagine how god-like the information being shared must have seen to the people of the time. Generation after generation these complex procedures were passed down on how to calculate the seasons. And even the operators of these stone computers would have seen this knowledge as divine.
Over thousands of years, complex mythologies were formed, where elements of the sky and earth were considered powerful as they imparted such complex and critical knowledge.
So while we look today at these ancient stone circles and think of the religious significance they had to the people who lived at that time what we are really seeing is science and society being formed.
People built an amazing amount of knowledge and applied it to better society.
Is any religion today really that different?