The BBC in the UK are currently screening a archaeology series exploring the idea that the Neolithic peoples in the Orkney Isles (North of Scotland) were the cultural capital of the British Isles. There's evidence to show that the high standard of culture predated Stonehenge.

enter image description here

I have this fictional idea that this advanced culture was based on a superior understanding of mathematics.

The ancient Orcadians could:

  • predict the seasons
  • understood the phases of the moon and their effect on the tides
  • estimate how many stones of what sizes could build a house
  • estimate how many fish would see a family through the winter
  • have a good idea of their worth of their goods in trade

In general, an appreciation of maths makes life more predictable.

In order to aid their relationship with tribes on the mainland, they need to convey this new concept to them, they need to teach numeracy and the communicate the advantages they bring to those others who manage nothing more than "making do" in their own settlements.

And here comes the stumbling block I have in this story.

How can the leaders of a more advanced tribe teach others, what strategies can be used to transfer this new knowledge onto others so that civilisation as a whole can grow and evolve on cultural and technological level?

In Summary

Although I'm using numeracy as the example here, at heart this is a question of skills/knowledge transfer in Neolithic times.

  • $\begingroup$ Just for reference, are you saying the ancient Orcadians could actually do all those things listed in bulled points, or you are adding their ability to do those things as part of your fiction. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 12 '17 at 14:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Knowing how much food to survive the winter comes with experience, not necessarily with advanced mathematical knowledge. As for understanding the phases of the moon .. that's really vague. The phases of the moon are cyclical, so once you observe them repeating a few times you can learn to estimate when they will occur again - no advanced mathematical knowledge needed. Having a "good idea of their worth in trade goods" is possibly the most flawed point. They lived in a barter society. If I won't survive without tools to farm my land, then they are worth their weight in gold. Value is subjective $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 12 '17 at 14:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Everything you're describing is common knowledge which a farmer, or tradesman would already have. I see no evidence of advanced mathematical knowledge in any of those points. Writing stuff down and doing math on paper is very different. That implies written language. Expressing a mathematical problem in words can actually be very tricky. So you're saying that these people have developed advanced mathematics, and the syntax to go with it? $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Jan 12 '17 at 14:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM I think you're undervaluing data analytics even in those low tech scenarios. Obviously we cannot prove anything one way or the other about old times, but your arguments sound like managers of mine in the 1990s wanting to know why we needed databases to track sales. See the book "Moneyball" for a very specific example. "We know how to build a great baseball team." "Oh, really? Let me show you the stats..." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moneyball $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 12 '17 at 16:45
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ On the flip side, I think the OP may be emphasizing math skill when he really means statistics and scientific method. Clearly, the ability to set up a hypothesis and check it would help with fishing stocks, house building, etc. The math computation along the way is part of that, but not the heart of the matter, in my observation. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 12 '17 at 16:47

Numeracy will spread by interaction with outsiders, specifically via trade and exploration:

People are pragmatic, and usually adopt methods and practices that work -- or work better than the alternatives. Since numeracy is practically useful in trade, and in provisioning expeditions that have a reasonable chance of returning, your numerate tribe will do well in both trading without travel (markets, granaries) and in trade (or other wealth-pursuing) travel -- probably by ship. Especially before the printing press and mass literacy, the sequence of travelling traders, to remote trading outpost, to a colony is a reasonable trajectory for these types of applicable knowledge to spread.

  • $\begingroup$ This answer contradicts known history. China, for example, explicitly rejected European innovations for a couple centuries... they suffered from really bad "Not Invented Here" syndrome en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_invented_here . Many of the European colonies reacted similarly, not recognizing the benefits. I've read docs mocking the Brits for needing to write everything down... apparently, some Indians thought the Brits must be weak in the head because their memories were so poor. I agree that trade causes some spread, but I think proactive sharing can help a lot. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 12 '17 at 16:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @SRM Tradition is a powerful force, but being right is super classy. Finishing a construction project on budget impresses people still to this day. And not starving in winter is a good step towards getting a significant other to move in with you. $\endgroup$ – user25818 Jan 12 '17 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @storeboughtdirt I agree with you that it seems like a wise idea. I'm just saying that the seemingly wise action wasn't the one taken historically. We humans don't often recognize our own best interests, particularly when race or culture differences get involved. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jan 13 '17 at 0:52

They don't have to actively push knowledge to the mainland. They are just doing thing better, more efficient, grow better crops, build better houses because of their understanding / knowledge.

This will make mainland people curious and scholars will travel to the island to learn the new ways of black magic numeracy. They will spend some time on the island until they think they have learned enough and then return to the mainland with the new knowledge (where they'll get burned because the mainlanders still consider numeracy as witchcraft, but that's another story).

Or it will be the merchants, bringing stuff to the island and return other useful things. Along with the material also knowledge is transferred, because they hear and see things, ask stuff and build their own knowledge.

Or one of your Orcandians gets tired of the island and decides to move to the mainland. He or she will also bring knowledge to the mainland, because when living on the island, they had work to do, where they most possibly had to use the better knowledge.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ There's quite a few errors in here. " (where they'll get burned because the mainlanders still consider numeracy as witchcraft, but that's another story)" Time line is long before witch burning...pre 'merchant' and 'scholar' as well (I'd be curious if Orcans here have currency). $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Jan 12 '17 at 18:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The Ancestors conducted trade in things like flint or decorative shells over great distances as far back as 20,000 years ago, so it may be safe to say "merchant" or "trader" are among the oldest professions. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Jan 12 '17 at 19:42

If you want to lead a world, you need an advantage. Knowing concepts your neighbors ignore is a significant competitive advantage, in particular in a world where you are still an ant with respect to natural forces (you may forecast a winter of starvation, but you have no means to buy crop from US, simply because US do not still exist for you), why would you then teach them? I think your "knowledge holder" should be treated as an holy race and forbidden interaction with strangers, for the sake of the nation growth.

  • $\begingroup$ If your neighbours are starving, they might find it interesting to have a closer look at your well-stocked granaries. Helping them not to starve in the first place might provide an advantage: a war is cheapest when it needn't be fought. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jan 13 '17 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki, though I may agree with you I also realize that it is still nowadays in most of the cases wishful thinking, imagine how would it be in the Neolithic with far less social conventions $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jan 13 '17 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ Paying for peace does happen. Yet you are right insofar as the advantageous group will not aim for equalizing but will want to keep at least some advantage. This still disagrees with your idea of forbidding interaction, i think. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jan 13 '17 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ That can be accomplished by instilling the taboo that the "holy priests of the square root of 2, humble guards of the mistery of the numbers" are too holy to let a foreign sight contaminate them. So the peasant visiting the village to buy some crop will only hear that behind a curtain there is the misterious power granting wellness to the village, but will be prevented to venture further. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jan 13 '17 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ As soon as the entire neighbouring village is really hungry, and they see that those with the priests are not. They may not understand why those folks have so much food. And they don't need to. They only need to understand that it's worth taking great risks to come and get it, because they starve if they don't. Someone might notice that a high priest of the square root of two is worth more when he's alive, and worth more to themselves while they are alive. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jan 13 '17 at 12:52

I think your premise is a bit flawed. The Ancestors had a very firm grasp of many of the things you speak of (there are lunar calendars marked on pieces of bone or cave walls dating back to 32,000 BC). There is also archeological evidence the Ancestors were skilled traders, as things like flints and decorative shells have been found hundreds of kilometres away from their origin points. Someone was obviously a very busy travelling salesman, and would probably have a good idea of what sorts of valuables could be traded for these treasures.

The primary difference between the Ancestors and us, their remote descendants is we have developed writing and mechanical storage of information and data, whereas they would have been using some sort of oral or memory based systems. Humans are capable of memorizing a great deal (especially if your very life would depend on this), and we know of lots of tricks to ensure your memory is working at peak efficiency. In the Renaissance, the "Memory palace" technique was developed, where you imagine a house, and inside each room you "place" a memory (or group of memories), and associate each individual data point with an item in a room. You could simulate this today by walking through you house and placing a "post it" note beside every object in the rooms of your house, with an important piece of information written on it. You see the flower pot in your kitchen, and you associate it with whatever is written on the note.

Obviously the "memory palace" technique would be completely foreign to the Ancestors, but some other technique to catalogue and memorize important facts would have been in use.

Long experience would also allow them to make good estimates "at a glance" of things like volume, weight and doing the quick calculations of things like "is this pile of smoked fish enough for the winter?" Once again, this would not be in a "maths" sort of way, but whatever technique was being employed would still be quick and accurate enough to sustain human life. Mentorship by the tribe's elders along with hands on experience starting at a young age would provide the means for the Ancestors to pass that information on through the generations.

So the ancient Orcadians are not developing anything new, but are simply using very long established (and very old) techniques to stay healthy and prosperous in their environment, and most of the peoples they might get in their travels would also be fairly well versed in these ideas and techniques.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy