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As the Moon Wanes . . .


It’s an important question: What role has the moon played in the development of human intelligence?


As a reminder to readers, my blog is now perched in the niche of elder perspective. That long view finds humanity currently at risk in at least three ways: from nuclear war, renegade technology, and the sixth great extinction. It seems a good time to consider in just one regard how the human mind evolved to bring us to this place.

So let’s go back in our imagination to about 25,000 B.C., to a place called Abri Blanchard in southwestern France. The night is pitch black. A man sits on the ground with his back against a boulder. His body is modern in its anatomy, his mind focused on an object in his lap that he can’t really see–but then he doesn’t need to. The flat piece of eagle bone is familiar from many hours devoted to notching its edge.

And now he begins. His left thumb finds a place identified by daylight in the right half of the bone. He takes a tool like a stylus, places the point next to his thumb, and turns it to drill a tiny hole. A few minutes later, he tests the indentation with his forefinger and is satisfied.

Abri Blanchard Bone

Abri Blanchard Bone

Then as we continue to watch, he looks up to study the brilliant stars in a clear sky, but they are too far away to illuminate for us the unusual intelligence in his dark eyes.

This man, primitive though we might find him, has just taken a momentous step in human history. One day after another for over two months, he will place evenly spaced marks on the bone. The pattern will record the cycles of the moon, its waxing moving to the left, waning toward the right.

The evolutionary leap dramatized above was discovered by a writer and journalist named Andrew Marshack. Back in 1962, he began working with an astrophysicist at NASA to place our emerging space program in the context of the history of civilization. His research, published in The Roots of Civilization (1972) took him to the study of artifacts of the Late Pleistocene period in France where he discovered the Abri Blanchard bone.

There are hundreds of other bones of this era etched with similar indentations, but this one differs in that the serpentine pattern was clearly not decorative. Working with a microscope, Marshack discovered that the 69 marks had been made sequentially but not all at once, and with 24 changes of tool.

One mark at a time and day by day, the passage of time was recorded as well as the phases of the moon. Over the ensuing thousands of years, this kind of activity would lead to the ability to count, to calculate, and to compute. In the year 1969, the application of such advanced skills enabled the first man to walk on the moon.

There is even greater significance to the moment described above, however. If one had to identify the most important of all the marks on the Abri Blanchard bone, it would be that first one, the place identified by that left thumb. According to Marshack’s analysis, the first mark represents the new moon, which we cannot see. It signifies the presence of the invisible, and it represents the beginning of abstract thought.

Tomorrow, July 15, we will have a new moon, the time when the moon, the earth, and the sun are in perfect alignment, and the night is ruled by darkness. It seems like a good time to pause and appreciate how important our distant companion has always been to us. And if the moon’s presence has played such a huge role in the development of human intelligence, another question presents: Are we using that intelligence for the highest good of the world monitored monthly by its full, shining face?

To be continued . . .

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