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History: The Interesting Questions Are Often "Why?" Questions
Let’s face it, we’d all rather be couch-potatoes relaxing than busting our chops doing hard work! We’d all rather be lazy and sleep in – what a luxury. That’s why we all love weekends and holidays, right? Of course, there are just times when the ‘ends’ – the necessities of life – justify the hard work ‘means’. I mean lots of people go to all sorts of hardships seeking buried treasure, like say at Oak Island, or diving for sunken Spanish treasure ships, to traipsing after the Lost Dutchman Mine. Get-rich-quick is a ‘why’ motive if ever there was one!
Then too the hard work in building your own home or ploughing the fields because you need to fill your belly is understandable. There’s an obvious positive motive in the construction of bridges, roads, tunnels, railroads, airports and any and all other infrastructure that services transport. There’s incentive to built arenas for sport (like the Roman Colosseum or Yankee Stadium), since sport is an activity that we like to participate in, even if just as a spectator.
But then too, even when it comes to the necessities, one tends to do the minimum required to achieve the desired results. I mean digging a grave 7000 years ago wasn’t easy, but the motive, avoiding the stink and decaying visuals and health hazards of a decomposing body was probably a reasonable trade-off, especially if the corpse had some sentimental value. On the other hand, they didn’t go to additional effort and dig a 12 foot grave when 6 feet under sufficed! That’s true in modern times as well. So there are limits to ‘why’ and motivations.
Of course modern technology takes a lot of the really, real hard work out of constructing skyscrapers, massive dams, nuclear power stations, etc., (and besides one gets paid for their labour) so let’s instead return back to a time when there was no such high-technology to assist and ease the burden, like grave-digging 7000 years ago.
The motivation or the ‘why’ question is easily answered when presented with examples, like treasure hunting or digging graves or filling your belly. But that’s not always the case. Yet perhaps it should be. Motive across time and space should be comprehensible to us – we’re not that far removed in time and space from our ancient ancestors. The ancient peoples, societies, cultures that are also part and parcel of these ‘why’ or motive issues are the exact same sort of individuals as you and I; the same ‘grey matter’; the same IQ’s; the same reasoning powers. If ‘why’ X back then did such and such, it should reflect why we would do the same in the here and now. If there is no such connection, then perhaps we have real bona-fide anomalies to consider.
‘Motive, means and opportunity’ are often cited in whodunit murder mysteries. In the context of this essay, it’s the ‘motive’ bit that’s the key. That ‘why’ question. Often though, even if there is a motive, the resulting whatever is often over-the-top. The Egyptian tombs, say those constructed in the Valley of the Kings, are often way above and beyond what was really necessary in order to secure reasonable goods and services and afterlife space for the dearly departed pharaoh. But back to ordinary motivation and a few examples of real life puzzlements.
Lots of books and articles (even websites) are full of the ‘how’ questions, as in ‘how’ did the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids at Giza? ‘How’ were those Easter Island statues constructed, transported and erected? ‘How’ can people construct the ‘crop circles’ in quick-smart time frames in the dead of night? But often a far more difficult question is the ‘why’ question, at least difficult once you subtract a survival, financial, personal glory, and legal, or even a curiosity (scientific) motive. Let’s start with that more modern example before travelling back in time – crop circles.
Crop Circles (England): Let’s assume that the ever ongoing crop circle phenomena, mainly but not exclusively British, are 100% the work of human beings and all are hoaxes. I mean there is certainly intelligence behind the construction, so Mother Nature has to take a back seat in this case. Now whether looking at pictures of many large and complex geometric ‘circles’, or better yet, undertaking on-site visitations, the visuals must reveal to anyone the massive amounts of time and effort that went into making them. What’s the motive? Well, it certainly cannot be personal reward, a pat on the back for your time and efforts, personal fame spread far and near on TV or in newspaper headlines – you name in print, far less monetary gain. Constructing crop circles – hoaxes – doesn’t put food in your belly or put a roof over your head or help you with your CV/resume when seeking employment. In fact, if the powers-that-be figure out whodunit, and whodunit was you, then your ‘reward’ could easily be a hefty fine and/or jail time. The ‘why’ question in the case of ‘crop circles’ is not easily answered by any means assuming human hoaxes.
There are numerous examples, like crop circles, that are apparently useless constructions, yet which required getting our all-loving couch-potato butts off said couches and into ‘blood, sweat and tears’ mode. For example, the Nazca Lines in Peru.
Nazca Lines (Peru): The ‘how’, as in how the Nazca Lines were made; the construction of these famous pictograms is a no-brainer. Any archaeological text will easily explain the ‘how’. The ‘why’ question on the other hand, however, is not so easily solvable. Why go to any amount of time, effort and energy to construct pictures in the dirt that can only been seen and appreciated from the air? This was a time when there was no ways and means of any contemporaries of those Nazca Line construction workers being able to view those pictures from the air. It would appear to be wasted effort. For a peoples living in a harsh environment like the Nazca Plains, efforts just could not be wasted on the frivolous. Nevertheless, the blood, sweat and tears to draw the pictograms were nonetheless provided. Why?
Machu Picchu (Peru): Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca ‘city’ perched high on a ridge between two windy hills, well mountains actually, some nearly 8000 feet above sea level in the high Andes. The ‘city’ was built atop this very steep, rugged and rather inaccessible dual mountain ridge and not even the Spanish Conquest ever heard of or located it. Apparently the best guess is that it was constructed as a sort of “Summer White House” for the Inca emperor (but nobody knows for absolute sure and there are alternative ideas). Given the location and terrain, it’s hardly an ideal place to build a ‘city’, especially when the Inca Empire controlled vast amounts of far more suitable land to pick and choose a “Summer White House” for their dear leader. There’s something rather odd about why Machu Picchu was built in the first place at enormous cost and effort, lots of massive stone blocks had to be cut, transported and heaved into place, but built it was. However, it was abandoned to the elements just a little over a hundred years later. Go figure! Why?
Egyptian Pyramids (Giza, Egypt): These massive constructions also apparently serve no real purpose. Why build a pyramid as a tomb for one, when for the same effort, you have a mausoleum for thousands of Egypt’s upper crust! In any event, no smoking gun bodies (mummies) have been found in the trilogy of those great Giza pyramids. Tomb robbers after gold, jewels and other valuables are quite understandable; but of what value is nicking off with the corpse? In any event some lesser pyramids have had sealed sarcophagi discovered, original plaster in place; no bodies! Something is screwy somewhere – again! Perhaps the pyramids were really designed as cenotaphs – memorials to the dead pharaohs as opposed to tombs for the dead. Or perhaps the real or at least supplementary purpose(s) of the pyramids has yet to have been thought of.
In non-pyramid tombs (like the Valley of the Kings; Valley of the Queens), while looting certainly took place and valuables that were on the mummies were stolen, the corpses themselves weren’t nicked. In fact a whole potful of them were latter taken to a more secure (hidden from sight) location. It’s only in the relatively recent ‘modern’ era, the post Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, when Egyptology-mania took hold, that mummies became valuable commodities both for private collectors and for museums. Until then, mummies, the actual bodies, had no financial value for tomb robbers.
Okay, that apart, if you’re a pharaoh with nearly unlimited resources at your command and a powerbase to get your own way, does it really ultimately matter whether your pyramid tomb is built out of blocks of stone that weigh on average 2.5 tons (but can reach 220 tons), or say constructed out of just one ton or even half-ton blocks of stone – the latter being far easier to haul and manipulate. As things currently stand, the Great Pyramid was constructed out of locally quarried limestone to the tune of over 2.3+ million blocks plus additional granite blocks imported from over 500 miles distance, each weighing roughly 25 to 80 or so tons, to the ultimate tune of some 8000 tons worth. Limestone isn’t too difficult to work; granite is a much tougher bastard! All up that’s one hell of a lot of manpower, materials and time needed to construct a tomb with no body in it! Let’s e just conclude – better those ancient Egyptian labourers doing the hard yards back then than you or I. If I were living back then, I’d be asking the ‘why’ question!
Finally, if pyramids were so all-fired important to the ancient Egyptians, why did they slowly decline in stature and in the use of quality building materials to eventually fade away, like an old soldier? It’s sort of like our cities of skyscrapers devolved into towns of townhouses hence into tent villages; or our shopping malls devolved back into the general corner store hence back to individuals bartering goods and services in the streets and alleyways.
Winged Bulls (Assyria): Once upon a time there existed a huge human-headed winged bull with five legs. Why? If your next door neighbour told you that I’d say you’d say that that someone was drinking or smoking something other than tea or tobacco. Alas, that would be the case were it not for the fact that these monstrosities are actually exhibited in the British Museum – well carved stone statues of them anyway. Such 3-D representations must have been the result of a lot of physical effort since carving life-sized statues out of solid rock is pretty labour intensive. Yet these are representations of obvious impossibilities. Why do that? Yet, this is just the tip of a huge iceberg. The Sphinx at Giza (Egypt) is another construction out of solid rock of something that’s biologically impossible. The number of apparently mythological hybrids is well into the multi-hundreds. You name the combo; it more than likely exists in some culture’s mythology in either 2-D and/or 3-D form. Why?
Carvings in Stone (Here, There and Everywhere): It’s one thing to hack out a block of stone, it’s quite another to carve intricate inscriptions, pictures, hieroglyphs, etc. in solid rock – it’s not quite as easy as carving you and your lovers initials in a tree trunk! The point is obviously to convey some sort of meaningful message to others. But the same purpose is accomplished, at far less effort, by just painting your images or hieroglyphs, etc. on the rock’s surface. That easier road was often travelled, for example in prehistoric cave art. My question is why the easier road wasn’t always travelled. Nearly all ancient societies, from Mesoamerica to ancient Egypt and the Middle East at least sometimes, often more than just sometimes, took the harder road that should have been less travelled for the couch-potato lovers of those times. Why?
Easter Island (South Pacific): We’re all familiar with the mysterious massive quasi-human stone statues that not only dot Easter Island, but practically define her geography in the eye of the armchair traveller. Now the locals had to work really, really hard to hack out, construct, carve, transport and raise these dozens and dozens of stone figures. A casual hobby this most certainly wasn’t! The purpose apparently revolved around ancestor worship, but why the need for so many? Americans may revere Abe Lincoln but there is only one Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (a site comparable in size to Easter Island) not multi-dozens. Easter Island’s ‘why’ question hasn’t been satisfactorily answered yet IMHO.
Pohnpei Island (Micronesia): The last thing you’d expect to find on a small tropical island would be massive artificially constructed megalithic basaltic structures comprised of boulders and columns weighing up to 50 tons each and stacked over 25 feet high without even primitive technology like beasts of burden or the wheel available to the natives. But, such is the case, a ruined city complex called Nan Madol. Since the stones/columns had to be imported and carried by local rafts or canoes from the nearest mainland (actually main island), the total amount of engineering, transporting and construction effort by a relatively small native population had to be immense – a very powerful ‘why’ motive must have been at work. Either that or there was a simple ‘how’ which varies in their traditions from those who could levitate the huge stones with the aid of a flying dragon to a magic payer which made heavy things weigh less.
Stonehenge (England): We’re all quite familiar with the basic story outline and images surrounding Stonehenge. Our ancestors way back then when to quite some considerable effort to construct this megalith, now a major tourist attraction. The ‘how’ question is again not as important as ‘why’. One common idea surrounds this megalith as some sort of ancient astronomical computer used for marking and celebrating the solstices; perhaps also predicting lunar/solar eclipses and other astronomical events of practical value to hunter-gatherers and farmers. Alas, you could construct Stonehenge at one-tenth the size with only a tenth the backbreaking effort and lose none of the structure’s computation abilities. Or, you could construct the device with locally available wood. That applies equally as well if Stonehenge were constructed solely as a place for gatherings/meetings, or something to serve as a sort of ‘temple’. A wooden ‘Stonehenge’ would have taken far less effort to construct and maintain, and wood-henges are certainly known to have been constructed in England. Why were dragging huge blocks of stone over many, many miles and then dressing them and raising them up so critical instead of doing things the couch-potato way? Who really knows?
Stone of the Pregnant Woman (Baalbek, Lebanon): There are many, many massive stone blocks that have been quarried out and put to use in various megalithic structures from Machu Picchu in Peru, to those Easter Island Moai statues, to the Olmec stone heads in Mesoamerica, to Stonehenge itself, to the pyramids (Egyptian and Mesoamerican), to obelisks, even the Parthenon columns, and the list could be extended a hundredfold. One hundred, two hundred, even over three hundred ton blocks of stone have been utilized. When it comes to erected obelisks, 400 tons or more are not unheard of. Then too there’s Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s ‘unfinished obelisk’ that, had it not cracked in-situ, would have had to have been erected by her subjects to the tune of heaving and hauling over 1200 tons. Talk about backbreaking! Then there’s the Roman Temple of Jupiter complex at Baalbek (ancient Heliopolis), which includes nearby under quarry the Stone of the South, otherwise known as the Stone of the Pregnant Woman that weighs in at slightly over 1000 tons. But wait, there’s more – another nearby unnamed rock slab clocks in at over 1240 tons. Here’s the ultimate ‘why’ question. What’s the point? There was no “Guinness Book of Records” back in those days! Maybe this was the ancient’s way of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Anything you can build I can build bigger!
Our Ice Age Ancestors (Europe): When you think of paradise, do you think of Tahiti or Patagonia; Florida or Siberia; Hawaii or Iceland? All else being equal, we tend to prefer warmth and sunshine over cold and snow, especially if you have to live off the land. So, why, during the recent Ice Ages did some of our European ancestors choose to eke or tough out and undergo a rather unnecessary test of pure survival by giving Mother Nature the middle finger and taking those nine months of severe ice and snow and freezing temperatures per year when they could have slowly but surely migrated south as the icecaps also grew and moved south to warmer climates. That would have been sensible. Surely the human population wasn’t so great back then that there weren’t vast and relatively uninhabited tracts of land with a way more pleasant climate. What was the motivation to boldly go and endure what none of our ancestors had ever endured before?
Abandon Hope Ye Who Live Here: Not all of our ancestors were super stubborn enough to stick things out no matter what. There’s a whole list of settlements that for reasons or motives unknown were given that middle finger by their occupants and left abandoned for Mother Nature to deal with. The question here is not so much why these settlements were built where they were built in the first place – why was New York City built – but why they were abandoned – it’s as if New York City was just left to the alley cats, rats, pigeons and cockroaches overnight. How you move out isn’t the problem; why you do when apparently you have the good (even if not great) life is something else yet again. Even if you need to use the exit door today, why not return tomorrow? The infrastructure is still largely in place, available when conditions improve. Then the inhabitants should return. Except in the historical record (see below) they never tend to return to pick up the pieces.
Okay, we all know why Pompeii was abandoned, but most cities bounce back from natural disasters, like San Francisco (earthquake) and New Orleans (hurricane). I strongly suspect that L.A. will bounce back from the next eventual Big One. But what of Mesa Verde (USA); Machu Picchu (Peru); Copan, Tikal and Palenque – Mayan cities in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras; and Teotihuacan (Mexico), a deserted metropolis even the ancient Aztecs were in awe of. What happened to cause all of these ancient Native Americans to decide to jump ship at home port and migrate elsewhere?
What about the Minoan civilization (Crete) which went walkabout into the mists of ancient history never to be seen or heard of again. A massive nearby volcanic eruption followed by a mega-tsunami maybe the ultimate smoking gun here (and which maybe gave birth to the tale of Atlantis) but we don’t know for sure. It’s all a big ‘why’ mystery.
Great Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe) was once a major trading city with population in the tens of thousands. It too went into decline and was abandoned for reasons unknown, though educated speculation focuses on environmental degradation as most likely.
In conclusion, poor history students are forced to learn (memorize) all about who, what, where and when. History classes would be a lot more interesting, even fun, if the ‘why’ question were given equal time.
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