Life lessons from history: Neil Oliver on searching the ancient past for timeless wisdom

Neil Oliver talks to Ellie Cawthorne about his new book, which searches the ancient past for timeless wisdom to help relieve our modern malaise

Neil Oliver

Ellie Cawthorne: In the introduction to the book, you speak about being in search of reassurance and a source of optimism. Why do you think our ancient ancestors are the place to turn for that reassurance?

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Neil Oliver: In my work, I read across thousands of years’ worth of history. I think if you do that, you quite quickly come to the realisation that what’s happening now has happened before in cycles. There’s a slowly tumbling wheel of time and the human race has been through the same sorts of problems again and again. They’ve had wars. They’ve seen outbreaks of pestilence and plague. They’ve had tyrannies and had democracies.

If you don’t pay attention to history, you might think that what’s happening to us in the 21st century is uniquely bad. But I feel that if you look back at other times and see how people coped with difficult situations, it’s reassuring to know that nothing is new. Our species has been dealing with the same big challenges again and again.

You quote the biologist Edward Osborne Wilson in saying that one issue we face in the modern world is having “god-like technology” but “palaeolithic emotions”. Why did that idea resonate with you?

As a species, we are maybe 200,000 years old. That number is fairly hard to pin down as the science keeps on changing. But the humans alive 100,000 years ago had exactly the same cognitive abilities as us – the same brain, same emotions. The same aspirations, ambitions, anxieties, the same cares for family, or predilections towards depression and stress, and all the rest of it. We’re exactly the same animals as we were in those unimaginably different circumstances. But today, we’re expecting people who are essentially the same animals as those living a hunter-gatherer existence 100,000 years ago to cope with the reality that we have now, where the advent of modern technology means that we’re increasingly existing to serve the machines, rather than the machines existing to serve us.

And it’s self-evident that people are struggling with it. We have conquered so many diseases and lifted billions of people out of poverty. In western Europe, we’ve lived, by comparison, in a very tolerant and peaceful society. And yet, even given all of those incredible gifts, so many people, it seems to me, are finding it hard to cope with daily reality. And I think it’s because we’re not giving ourselves the chance to take a breath and accept that deep down we fundamentally still are what we were 100,000 years ago. We’ve asked an awful lot of ourselves – to cope with social media and mobile phones, jet planes and emails and all the rest. But I think there’s a panacea for that – there’s almost a therapy you can put yourself through by paying attention to the past.

The Callanish stones in the Outer Hebrides
The Callanish stones in the Outer Hebrides. (Photo by: Jan Holm/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What kinds of life lessons can we take from the past?

I think it’s simple things. In the book I look at a circular setting of rocks at Olduvai [in modern-day Tanzania] dated to 1.9 million years ago, which has been interpreted as the basis for ‘the oldest house in the world’. I suggest it speaks to the idea of people, even then, thinking about a permanent base. Maybe women with suckling youngsters, unable to follow the hunt, waited at such places. Hunters perhaps resisted the urge to eat at the site of the kill, remembering others awaiting them, and took food back to share.

This is potentially very early evidence of the importance of having place for family, a home. That’s a fundamental realisation that our species came to not thousands of years ago, or even hundreds of thousands of years ago, but millions. When we live confusing, complicated lives among the maelstrom of everything else that’s going on, it’s a great source of comfort to be reminded that the importance of family is and always has been central to a person’s sanity.

Another lesson worth learning is just how brief our appearance on this Earth is. We walk our dog on a golf course close to where we live in Stirling. And along our route, there’s a piece of exposed bedrock – a clump of volcanic rock no bigger than a dustbin lid. This little bit of bedrock is perhaps 300 million years old, and etched into it are cup and ring marks made by Neolithic farmers maybe 4,000 or 5,000 years ago. We know that farmers all over Europe were in the habit of making these marks.

I take comfort from knowing that those marks have been there through all the history that we care about. Throughout the rise and fall of empires, world wars, and the comings and goings of kingdoms – in all of that time, those three or four little circles have been etched into that rock.

You’ll have a similar experience if you visit somewhere like Callanish stone circle in Scotland. The stone there is Lewisian gneiss – some of the oldest rock on Earth. It was created something like 3 billion years ago, and the planet’s only four and a half billion years old. So without a shadow of a doubt, if you touch the Callanish stones, you will never in your life touch anything older. I appreciate being reminded that I am an infinitesimal speck in the continuum of time. It helps me to put my everyday cares and concerns into context.

You take a very personal approach to archaeological discoveries in the book, and one of the things you try to do is get to the human stories underneath the material findings. How can you reconstruct emotion from archaeological evidence?

One of the discoveries that I look at in the book is the grave of a mother and baby found in Vedbæk, just north of Copenhagen. It’s almost certain that the mother and baby both died during childbirth and were buried together 6 or 7,000 years ago. What’s really remarkable is that when the baby was placed in the grave, it was laid on top of a swan’s wing. There was no practical necessity to do that. Instead, it could perhaps be evidence of someone imagining that by involving the spirit of a swan, they could harness the activity of migratory birds – that the soul of the baby might come back in the same way that the swans would come back every year. Or at the very least, somebody just couldn’t bear the thought of putting an infant’s body onto the cold ground without something soft and comforting to place it on.

In discoveries like this, buried alongside the bones and other bits and pieces, you can find emotion. You can find grief, archaeologically. It is profoundly affecting that after thousands of years of it lying forgotten in the ground, archaeologists could open that grave in the 1980s and find an ephemeral human emotion there on the ground, made evident by the way in which the mourning people treated those bodies.

In some discoveries, buried alongside the bones and other bits and pieces, you can find emotion. You can find grief, archaeologically. I find that profoundly affecting

Other burial sites you discuss include those at Shanidar in modern-day Iraq. Why did those discoveries capture your imagination?

Once upon a time, maybe as recently as 30,000 years ago, there was more than one kind of humankind on the planet. That in itself is an amazing thought. Of course, Homo sapiens are now the only ones left, but around 100,000 years ago there’s a possibility that we might have shared the planet with as many as a dozen variations on what it is to be human. Just imagine that!

One of those varieties of humans were the Neanderthals, who emerged around half a million years ago, and went extinct perhaps around 40,000 years ago. In our conceit as Homo sapiens, we imagined for the longest time that we were the only humans who did things like bury our dead. It turns out that this was a terrible vanity, because the Neanderthals were doing it too. What you find in the caves at Shanidar is evidence of Neanderthal burial.

One of the most extraordinary discoveries at Shanidar is the body of an individual called Nandy, as he was nicknamed by archaeologists. Nandy had a disabled arm and was also blind in one eye. This inevitably meant that he would have been a bit of a burden on the rest of the tribe, in that he couldn’t hunt but he still required food.

You might think that a savage, brutal version of humankind would have done away with him as an encumbrance that they couldn’t be bothered with. But the evidence is that Nandy lived to be old by the standards of the day, possibly into his 40s. We can tell this because he had arthritis, and his teeth were worn down from his diet. When Nandy died, his fellow Neanderthals buried him in a cave. We don’t live inside those people’s minds, so we can’t know exactly what they were doing. But looking at it objectively, it appears that he was looked after and valued. And when he died, he was treated with great respect.

Another burial in the same cave appears to be of a man whose grave was filled with fresh cut flowers, which seems to be a great expression of sophisticated thinking. It is also a reminder that love itself isn’t only ours – these discoveries suggest that it transcends the species, because we seem to also find it among the Neanderthals.

When we discuss the ancient past, the common assumption is that people’s lives back then were purely a gruelling slog for survival. Why did you want to offer a different perspective?

It’s true that for most people, for most of history, life was hard. Daily realities included pain without pain relief, disease without treatment, infant mortality, the presence of terrifying predators, and no means of contraception or controlling childbirth. The brutal, cruel, harsh fact of life as the majority of people lived it must not be overlooked. But what’s instructive is that, even in those circumstances, people still found space for love and joy, for expressions of grief, for treating the dead with great respect, for extending all kinds of energy and imagination creating things like standing stones.

What’s ironic at the moment is that more people are having a better chance of a life than ever. So with all that we’ve got, we have to ask ourselves: why can’t we be happier?

It’s about drawing a breath and appreciating the world around us: being amazed by what is out there. Take the ancient Egyptians. Their civilisation lasted for more than 3,000 years. But in the end, it became a backwater because the Egyptians had gone down a path where they were setting life aside to focus instead on preparing for death. They suffered from a sort of terminal sterility. For all the wonders that had been achieved, Egypt was left behind like a rock pool.

One of the life lessons you write about in the book is the importance of home, and the place that you live in is clearly very important to you. Why do you think it’s such a special area?

Stirling is an area richly steeped in stories. There’s evidence of human population in the area running back for thousands of years, and a great deal of Scottish history has happened here. For the longest time, there was only a 9-mile-wide strip of dry land with solid, hard footing that you could move large bodies of men and animals through. On either side, out towards the coast, it was morass and marsh. So anyone with an army moving north, maybe to conquer Scotland, or travelling south, perhaps to invade England, had to come this way. That’s why so many battles were fought in this particular vicinity.

If the trees weren’t so full in leaf, I would be able to see Stirling Castle from my window. There’s been a castle there for almost 1,000 years, which sits on a rock that’s 300 million years old. Stirling Castle is known affectionately as the ‘brooch’ that hitches the Highlands to the Lowlands – it’s a nexus of Scottish and therefore British history.

You could spend lifetimes trying to understand what’s here, which means that just going out into the area around my house is enough. Now that we have the technology to look at anywhere in the world from our laptops, sometimes there’s a tendency to overlook what’s right here at home. It’s like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz – it’s only when she comes back to Kansas after all her adventures that she properly appreciates what she had.

If you had to nominate an ancient discovery or site as one of the most revealing about human history, which would you choose?

One that always grabs me is Birka Girl, a little Viking whose remains were found on the island of Björkö in modern-day Sweden. I think about her often. I know exactly where she was found – I’ve been to the island of Björkö, and seen her skeleton and grave. She was a little girl who probably died when she was no more than six years old. Archaeologists think that possibly her mother drank too much alcohol while pregnant and the little girl was born with a syndrome that would have made her look a bit different. But she was clearly valued, because when she died, she was richly adorned and buried in the best plot in the graveyard. She was certainly treasured for the short time that she was alive.

I think the reason I often think of her is because of all of the grief, emotion and humanity that was expressed in the way her little body was treated in death. Archaeological analysis revealed that the dress that she was wearing in her grave was red. Sometimes I’ll see a flash of red out of the corner of my eye and I’ll think about Birka Girl.

I’ve made documentaries and written a book about Vikings. We think about them as being these great warriors with longboats and battleaxes – a source of terror. But for me, when someone says the word ‘Viking’, I think about a little girl in a red dress.

What lesson have you been most inspired by? Lately you’ve been involved in debates about freedom of speech. Is there any ancient wisdom that would apply to that?

Legend has it that King Solomon wore a ring with the words “This too shall pass” etched into it. It was supposed to remind him that, however great a king he might be, he was here today and gone tomorrow. That’s true for all of us. And any problems that we’re surrounded by? They too shall pass.

We’ve made our modern life so complicated and stressful for ourselves. And I think we need to pull back, pause and reflect that for hundreds of thousands of years we lived differently. In the past, when circumstances were difficult and lives were pain-ridden, threatened by war and disease, they still found it in their hearts to make expressions that have haunted our imaginations for thousands of years. The fact that they could do that in the unimaginably hard world that they inhabited should inspire us to be so much happier in our world and time.

Wisdom of the Ancients: Life Lessons from our Distant Past by Neil Oliver is published by Bantam and is out now

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This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine