If we can’t imagine the past, what hope the future?

By | October 2, 2012

Another piece I recorded for the BBC

Up until we discovered a body in a glacier in the Italian Alps more than 20 years ago, we didn’t really have a clue about our ancestors.  The body  belonged to a man who died 5000 years ago,. While much of the interest has focused on how he died — it took scientists 10 years to discover he was killed by an arrow whose head was still lodged in his shoulder — much more interesting to me is that we had no idea about how someone like this dressed. 

Otzi, according to an excellent book by Bill Bryson, has confounded all assumptions: for one thing he had more gear than your average outdoorsy dude today , like

two birchbark canisters, sheath, axe, bowstave, quiver and arrows, small tools, some berries, a piece of ibex meat and two spherical lumps of birch fungus, each about the size of a large walnut and carefully threaded with sinew. One of the canisters had contained glowing embers wrapped in maple leaves, for starting fires. 

His clothes — leggings, garters and belt, a loincloth and hat — were made from skins and furs from red deer, bear, chamois, goat and cattle,  He carried a rectangle of woven grass that might have been a cape or a sleeping mat — we don’t know. he was wearing boots that looked like birds nests on soles of stiffened bear skin, which looked awful until a foot and shoe expert recreated them and walked up a mountain. Turned out their grip was better than modern rubber, without giving blisters. 

Now it’s great that we now know this stuff, but it’s somewhat humbling to think how little we had imagined any of this. We were wandering around for several hundred years looking down on our ancestors thinking they dressed and were equipped like Raquel Welch in 10,000 years BC. 

Turns out that we lacked the imagination to figure out what our forebears looked like. We’d have done better to have wandered down to our nearest outdoor store than listen to the experts pontificate. And yet I’ve seen no collective mea culpa about this and to reassess what we think we know by trying to imagine a little harder. 

And so for something even more depressing: if we’re so bad at imagining what the past looked like, what hope do we have about the future? We’ve generally been pretty poor at this, even in the short term. Bladerunner may have been a great movie now thirty years old this year, but the world it depicts of seven years hence appears to be completely without the one thing that already dominates and defines our world: mobile devices. 

Sure we are supposed to be surrounded by robots that look so much like us we’d need a lie detector machine called a Voight-Kampff to tell the difference, and we’d be floating about in flying cars, but to yack with our love interest, we’d need to find a bar with a video payphone, and if someone wanted to reach us they’d have to  track us  down in the permanent rain to our favorite noodle stall. 

Now our mobile devices are indispensable, wrapping the Internet around us in a way that few of us predicted even ten years ago. None of us predicted social networks like Facebook. None of us thought that nearly a billion people would sign up. I dread to think what we haven’t imagined about the next ten, 20, 30 years.

My money is on us all wearing bird nest boots. 


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