Textbooks tell us that civilization is about 5,000 years old. At least that’s about as far back as we find the first writing and the first significant man-made structures such as ziggurats and pyramids. Before that was a period called ‘prehistory.’ Unrecorded, it was a time assumed to be far more primitive than our own.
No one would argue that a lot has happened since “prehistoric” times; useful things like the invention of the television remote control, escalators, and computer dating services. O.K. maybe some of these aren’t essential, but they do show how different life is now from 5,000 years ago. In fact, most of the products and services that fill our lives today were absolutely inconceivable to our distant ancestors; and that’s the point. Just as our great great grandfather could hardly envision our present, so too is it exceedingly difficult for us to see our distant future.
Just one hundred years ago, few could have imagined we would now be sending robots to the surface of Mars, cloning plants and animals, and carrying around little cellular devices that enable us to instantly talk to or text someone halfway around the world. If we could go back in time and query a nineteenth century farmer about these things he would probably say, “What’s a robot and how did it get to Mars?” Or, “why do you want to talk to someone in China?” Could they have understand you? Cloning would probably sound downright scary to them—if they believed you. Relevance is a prerequisite for understanding the future—without it, it is hard to conceive of where we are going.
While predicting specific technologies might be very difficult, our distant ancestors did leave us a key to comprehending the future—at least in broad terms. They talked about it in myth and folklore and ancient texts; Plato called it The Great Year.
Ancient cultures around the world believed that history or consciousness moved in a vast cycle of time with alternating Dark and Golden Ages. Of course most scholars consider this just a myth nowadays and assume there was no fabled Golden Age. But an increasing amount of evidence suggests our remote ancestors (long before the classical Dark Ages) possessed tremendous knowledge.
For example, we find evidence of precision engineering in the pyramids and canal systems of ancient cultures in both Mesopotamia and South America. There are also tell-tale signs of a massive agricultural society in Brazil where we find the famed Terra Preta de Indio soil. It is self-replenishing, containing billions of living organisms per cubic centimeter, and plants thrive in it. It is found all over the Amazon basin, in measured plots averaging 2 to 4 hectares and laden with pottery shards, so we know it was used extensively by some unknown culture. This remarkable soil has been studied at Cornell University, but still no one knows how to recreate it. Scientist John Burke (see sidebar, page 61) has shown us that the megalithic stones at Avebury are neatly aligned by polarity. The amazing non-random pattern tells us the unknown ancient builders could somehow detect the subtle magnetism in these stones thousands of years before we developed the instruments to do the same. All these things were thought to be impossible for ancient civilizations according to most twentieth century textbooks. Yet, here they are popping up left and right. Most of us are familiar with the more mundane examples:
Schools teach that Volta invented the battery in the early 1700’s, but ancient batteries have been found in Babylon dating to the BC era (Baghdad Battery).
Textbooks state that complex geared devices were not developed until the great clock making era around AD 1300 to AD 1400 yet highly sophisticated gears were found in a Greek shipwreck that dates to the BC era (Antikythera device).
Orthodontics and dentistry were thought to be developments of a modern society, but now we find the Egyptians wore orthodontics 4,000 years ago and some skulls in Pakistan show neatly drilled rear molars that date to almost 8,000 years ago.
We were taught that Copernicus discovered the heliocentric system (Earth goes around the sun) in 1543, but it has recently come to light that Aristarchos of Samos and Archimedes knew of such a system almost 2,000 years earlier.
This story repeats again and again with engineered structures, metallurgy, plant hybridization, mathematics, and many other sciences. It seems we are just rediscovering that are ancient ancestors weren’t so primitive after all.
Therefore, if we read repeated myths that our ancestors saw an ebb and flow of the ages, wherein history or consciousness moves in a vast cycle of time, should we not at least consider they might be right—even if we have not yet noticed such a phenomenon?
It should be noted that more than a few pre-Dark Age cultures (including Ancient India, Egypt, Babylon, and Greece) predicted their own decline as a natural process of the Great Year. And they were right! Every last one of them slipped into a worldwide Dark Age that obscured the ancient knowledge and nearly destroyed the culture. Many ancient discoveries, from the heliocentric system of the Greeks to the Babylon battery, were lost for millennia and not rediscovered until the “renaissance” (French for “rebirth”) or later.
So how did these people know they were headed for a decline? Hesiod and the Greeks spoke poetically of the long lost Golden Age but knew their own time was in a lower age and descending era. They had hundreds of stories about the amazing course of life and history, tales that we now call myth and folklore, but they believed them to be true.
Our very distant ancestors lived much closer to nature than we do today. Their view of time goes like this: Just as the earth spins on its axis and gives us the cycle of night and day, and just as the earth goes around the sun and gives us the cycle of the seasons, so too is there an even larger celestial motion that results in a larger cycle. This cycle, their Great Year, a.k.a. one precession of the equinox, is said to have its own type of seasons or “ages of man.”
The Greeks broke the cycle into the Iron, Bronze, Silver, and Golden ages. In one phase, we are said to progress upward and everyone and everything evolves to great heights. They implied consciousness would expand when they said humanity goes through the following stages: age of man, to the age of the hero, to the age of the demi-god and finally to the age of the gods (Golden Age) before the cycle slowly reversed itself.
The ancient people of the Indus Valley (whom Alexander the Great called the “Indoos,” the writers of the Vedas) called it a “yuga” cycle and broke it into the Kali, Dwapara, Treta, and Satya yugas, corresponding to the Greek ages. Other cultures from the Hebrew to the Hopi also spoke of it although it was often in obscure language.
Giorgio de Santillana, the former professor of the history of science at MIT, states in his book Hamlet’s Mill that this thought was embedded in several hundred myths from over thirty ancient, diverse cultures. This is how universal the cycle of the ages once was. Giorgio suggested that we should try to understand why the Great Year and its attendant motion of the heavens, the precession of the equinox, held such importance to the ancients.
There is an increasing body of modern work that examines the cycle, its nuances and possible causes, and it is gaining in scientific merit. In fact, the 6th annual “Conference on Precession and Ancient Knowledge” will be held this year at the National Academy of Sciences Beckman Center on the University of California campus where a host of scientists, historians, and students of ancient history will address the topic. But our interest here is not to discuss the merit or mechanics. Our focus now is if the ancients are right, then understanding the ebb and flow of the cycle can give us a glimpse into our own future.
Back to the Future
According to the Vedic scholar, Swami Sri Yukteswar, the cycle takes about 24,000 years (which is within 7% of the currently accepted periodicity for one precession of the equinox). By his reckoning, the last Golden Age peaked in 11,500 BC and consciousness slowly declined from this time until bottoming out around AD 500. We can see from the historic record that most of the world’s great ancient civilizations are indeed in decline leading up to this point in time. In particular, Egypt, Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and many of the cultures in the Mideast region have fallen to the point that they are almost nomadic societies, unable to build any of the ziggurats or pyramids of their ancestors. In Europe, too, Greece and Rome had fallen to very chaotic and brutal states, with most of the world’s historians calling the final fall of Rome, and the shuttering of Plato’s Academy (in AD 519), the beginning of the “classical Dark Ages.” China went through a similar process losing much knowledge and turning fierce with the Han Dynasty. Many of the cities of the early Americas from Caral to Teotihuacan had also been abandoned by this time, but these histories are not as well known.
From AD 50 onward, we have slowly evolved to once again being capable of building great cities, codifying laws, and at least not crucifying people in the street anymore. With the burst of the renaissance (when we went from the lowest age to the next highest age) we rediscovered many ancient technologies and began developing many new ones. At the same time we have brought back democracy from the Greeks, and are slowly but surely building a more civilized society. However, we have not even scratched the surface of human potential according to Yukteswar.
As he explains, when we are in the lowest age, mankind is only aware of the things he can perceive with his senses and has no knowledge of finer forces such as electricity or magnetism. Then, as consciousness progresses, mankind slowly becomes aware of these forces, as well as other subtle forces and subtle laws. Later in this current age (the Bronze or Dwapara Yuga) we are supposed to realize the energetic nature of reality and begin to see ourselves as energy beings (wearing physical bodies). If we are to trust our leading physicists in quantum mechanics (that say all matter is essentially vibrating strings of energy) then maybe such a concept is not so far-fetched.
In the next highest age, the Treta Yuga beginning in AD 4100, Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, tells us we will return to a pre-Babel state of consciousness where “clairvoyance and telepathy are once again common knowledge.” Supposedly then writing, as we know it, is no longer essential. Perhaps that is why it does not seem to come into being until the post Babel age, even though mankind was capable of great engineering projects and other works that would seem to demand detailed plans and written communication as a prerequisite.
After that, the cycle suggests most of humanity becomes so advanced that the earth returns to a Garden of Eden. It is said then that mankind overcomes the limitations of time and space and communes with the stars. If true, it would certainly cast some light on the meaning of some of the early hieroglyphs and pyramid texts that hint at such capabilities. These kinds of things sound fantastic and impossible to our present state of consciousness, but Yukteswar and other proponents of the cycle would simply say we do not yet have the capacity to understand. The many ancient tales of magic and mankind’s becoming demi-gods or gods are nowadays deemed to be the gibberish of a primitive people—even though Christ himself once said “These things that I do ye shall do also and greater things.” Perhaps we just can’t believe it. But if 2,000 year-old stories of a heliocentric system were found to be true, maybe, just maybe, the Great Year might be discovered to have a basis in fact. If so, we have a glimpse of the future.
For more information about the science, mechanism, and mythology of the Great Year, please look for Walter Cruttenden’s book Lost Star of Myth and Time and DVD The Great Year, narrated by James Earl Jones.