Interdum stultus opportuna loquitur...

Monday, August 23, 2004

How Many Years? 100? 200?

Note - from June 24th 2009, this blog has migrated from Blogger to a self-hosted version. Click here to go straight there.

Nothing market-related - it's Monday, and I'm still setting up the infrastructure for the "full works and jerks" which will make itself plain later in the week.
Today's missive concerns a significantly more important question.
Just how long would it take for all vestiges of today's "civilisation" to be completely erased? For our descendants to be completely unaware of the greater proportion of our technology?
We take for granted that our civilisation is permanent - and for the purpose of our lifetimes, perhaps it is. But what of our posterity? History is littered with the debris of empires who thought they would last forever.
Every continent has its fallen giants - the Inca, Maya, Aztec, Toltec, Olmec, and Anasazi of the Americas; Rome, Greece, Byzantium, Assyria, Egypt around the Mediterranean. Lesser city-states that pre-date Rome's empire - Etruscan and Latium - also had a legacy, much of it destroyed by pillage.
Even the more recent empires - although intact as nations - have lost a great deal of the intellectual heritage of their pre-Empire days. There is precious little English literary or historical writing that pre-dates Britain's Elizabethan (Elizabeth I) era. Spinoza is the only writer that comes to mind from the Iberian peninsula, but really he did most of his work in Holland. The tolerant and progressive intellectual environment of Moorish Spain has left us precious little as far as societal memory is concerned.
Think even of the "recent" empires (those that post-date Byzantium). Portugal, Spain, Holland, Hungary... all reduced to shadows of their former glory. In time, there is a non-trivial probability that their whole legacy will be less than a footnote. After its decline, Rome was a city of almost no importance whatsoever. The eventual near-extinction of Rome was set in motion by a desire by Constantine to move his centre of power eastwards... to Byzantium, which in turn fell in the 1400s to the advancing forces of Islam.
As America falls, we must think hard about the preservation of some form of cultural memory. When the Maya abandoned Tikal, and Teotihuacan was razed, the jungle took them back so completely that they remained the stuff of legend until the century just passed. The last Inca claimant (Titu Kusi Yupanqui) died in the early 1500's, and yet much - if not all - of the culture of the Inca is now lost.
You might think "we have so much stuff written down and otherwise recorded... there is near-zero chance of the obliteration of our culture". Think again. In the grand sweep of history, an infinitesimally small proportion of the written output of humanity survives.
Four hundred years after the death of Cleopatra, Egyptians - the heritors of the longest-lived society in history - had literally no idea what was contained in the Papyrus of Ani (a.k.a. The Egyptian Book of the Dead), or any of the hieroglyphic funerary writings. That material was lost for another 1400 years - until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. And it took a further 100 years to fully decipher the Papyrus.
It was only by luck that the Rosetta Stone was ever discovered. This artefact of the reign of one of the Ptolemaic kings - Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 B.C.) - was discovered by Napoleon's forces when they were digging an encampment.
Doubly luckily, the decree that it promulgated was written in both Greek and Egyptian - and the Egyptian was written in both hieroglyphic and demotic/hieratic (basically, the written script of the time of Ptolemy - most folk had no knowledge of hieroglyhs, even in Ptolemy's day).
Norden (1755) and Pococke (1743) show the Sphinx buried up to it's neck in sand - similar to the Statue of Liberty in "Planet of the Apes". A photograph taken in the 19th century by an anonymous cameraman confirms this (see below).
There's good evidence that by the time of the Hyksos, a large part of Egyptian culture - particularly that of the Early and Middle kingdoms - was lost to the Egypt of the day. That's not entirely surprising, considering that from the gap from Ahmose (first ruler of the New Kingdom) to Ptolemy V Epiphanes was 1400 years.
There was a bigger gap between Nebka I (First Ruler of the Old Kingdom) and Ahmose than there was between Ahmose to the start of the Ptolemies. By comparison, the United States is an upstart - not even out of nappies - and yet by the end of the Egyptian empire, the Egyptians themselves had little idea of their historical heritage.
Egypt rose, explanded, and got to the stage where its production enabled sufficient surplus to afford the construction of the most massive "monumental edifices" in human history. Then the Syrian Hyksos took it over, the Egyptians took it back, the Persians took it over and held it for 200 years... the Egyptians took it back.
The Persians took it again, this time for just 10 years, and then Alexander the Great took over half the known world including Egypt. 300 years later Egypt fell under Rome's thrall and the a 1500-year hiatus in knowledge began.
Anyhow... enough of the background. Just try and take in that the last Egyptian dynasty - from Ptolemy I Soter I to Ptolemy XV Caesarion & Cleopatra VII- lasted longer than the United States has lasted thus far. Fact is, civilisations - regardless of their apparent permanence at the time - wither and die.
The truly great civilisations - Sumer, Assyria, Egypt, Rome, Greece - fell, and then spent hundreds of years as little more than "trace" memories. There was the odd ruin here, and only fragments of the writings of their respective intelligentsia have survived "purges" and suppression by subsequent ideologues. For a long time we had no ability to translate some of their legacy.
Ancient Greece gave us Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Aeschylus, Homer, Demosthenes... Rome gave us Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Livy, Ovid, Suetonius, Virgil... and these names only scratch the surface of what we still have. Imagine how much stuff we have lost.