How The Ancients Had Better Technology Than Us

Photo of Tikal by Jeff Cotner

In the Three Body Problem, scientists at the end of the world rack their brains for the most long-lasting storage technology and sheepishly come back with this answer:

“According to the most advanced theories and techniques in every field, based on extensive theoretical research and experimentation, through analysis and comparison of multiple proposals, they did find a way to preserve information for about one hundred million years. And they emphasized that this was the only method known to be practicable. Which is — ” Luo Ji lifted the cane over his head, and as his white hair and beard danced in the air, he resembled Moses parting the Red Sea. Solemnly, he intoned, “ — carving words into stone.”

Carving words into stone. What the ancients did thousands of years ago. We are children standing on the shoulders of giants. We are like the Monkey King, thinking he can leap out of the hand of the Buddha.

In that story the Monkey King, Sun Wukong (my childhood hero) makes a bet with the Buddha to rule Heaven. All he has to do in jump out of the Buddha’s hand. Wukong laughs. He is much more powerful than that. He can ride clouds. He can leap 1,000 leagues with a single bound. He girds up his tiger-skin sarong and bounds. He flies to the end of the world, where there’s nothing but five pillars suspended in the clouds. He writes his name on one and pisses on another, to mark his territory. Then he re-bounds. Smirking up at the giant Buddha, he demands his kingdom.

The Buddha smiles, Buddha-like. “But my child, you never left my hand”. And the Monkey King looks down in shock. There on the Buddha’s forefinger is written Sun Wukong, Great Sage Equal To Heaven. Next to a puddle of monkey piss. The bet is lost. The Buddha turns his hand over and traps the Monkey King under the Five Fingers Mountain for a few thousand years, to learn his lesson. Which he does, eventually. I feel like this is where Homo Sapiens is. Less wise than ever, thinking that we’re better than our ancestors and the gods. We’re about to get slapped down hard and take a few thousand years to near actual enlightenment.

I was thinking about this, also, as a I read a history of the Maya. Therein Schele and Freidel write:

Ah-Cacaw was pleased with the richness of the offerings they carried in the great plates. There were shells and coral from the distant seas to the south, east, and west, purchased from coastal traders and hoarded for this day. Even more precious were the seaweed, sponges, and other living creatures the young men had conveyed inland in saltwater-filled crocks to keep them from spoiling in the tropical heat. The shamans took each offering from its plate as it was presented to them. Beside each cache pit lay a square of beaten-bark cloth. Others were spread on the floor next to the base of the broken tree. With expert grace, the shamans placed each of the offerings in its turn onto the light-brown cloth, all the while singing the story of the dark seas before the gods were carefully arranged, they laid the backbones of the fish and the spines of stingrays onto the prepared stacks…

The assembled lords and shamans used additional stingray spines to draw blood from their ears and tongues in the ritual that would bring the offerings to life. Then, chanting prayers, they pulled up the corners of the bark wrapping cloths, being careful to preserve the pattern of the offerings within. Folding the cloths carefully, they formed bundles which were decorated with red and blue on their outside surfaces. While one man held each bundle tightly closed, another placed a band of woven fibers around it, drawing these fibers into a tight knot at the top. Cautiously and reverently, they lowered one bundle into each pit. Others were laid against the base of the broken monument…

Once Stela 31 was cached in its place, work crews filled the chambers of the old temple, then collapsed its vaults and roof comb, sealing in its power forever. They then covered the old building with a flat topped pyramid twelve meters tall, which would provide the construction base for a new sacred mountain which would reach 18.8 meters in height. (A Forest Of Kings)

Today we look at blood sacrifice, ceremonial offerings, and building temples as atavistic, ie backwards, but it is these acts which are in fact the most forward thinking in human history. It is our monuments in stone and bone that will communicate the longest forward in history, long after there are no hard-disks to spin up AI and after our radio transmissions have faded away. Everything we pride as so advanced today is in fact extremely temporary. All we leave for the long term is our waste. We are in fact a garbage civilization, scorning our elders who actually made things of value for higher purposes. This supposed age of reason is actually devoid of values and deranged.

When I read about the Maya or any ancient civilization, I’m struck by how advanced they were. First, they were able to plan based on astrological alignments — showing a keen awareness of spacetime — and then they were able to execute on a massive scale (communicating across spacetime). Today we just plonk shit wherever and it’s immediately falling apart. Highways, skyscrapers, and buildings are all immediately depreciating assets and we frequently destroy them and start over. They look like stone but are not. We rarely do anything as intentional as collecting things and carefully interring them in the ground because we don’t collectively believe in an afterlife. And so what we make doesn’t live long after us at all.

In Three Body (the last book Death’s End, specifically, spoiler alert) humanity is faced with, well, it’s end and is scientific society suddenly starts to think about the afterlife. And what conclusion do they reach? The same as the ancients. We are so proud of modern communications technology, but it is all what Harold Innis called ‘light’ media. Media which communicates well across space but poorly across time. As he wrote:

The concepts of time and space reflect the significance of media to civilization. Media which emphasize time are those which are durable in character such as parchment, clay, and stone. The heavy materials are suited to the development of architecture and sculpture. Media which emphasize space are apt to be less durable and light in character such as papyrus and paper. The latter are suited to wide areas in administration and trade. (Empires and Communication, via me)

We actually do very little in terms of ‘heavy’ media because we honestly don’t think that far. We think of quarters instead of ‘long counts’ and worship immediate consumer needs instead of ancestors or gods. The only records we leave in stone are involuntary, a mass extinction, radioactivity, and carbon. That is to say, pollution. We are a garbage civilization worshiping greed and we dare to call the ancients backwards. Yet their beliefs were strong enough to advance to us and will continue long after this fossil-fueled orgy has ended.

We can learn from them, but the main thing we’re taught is that everything is so much better now, and weren’t they gruesome? Meanwhile we sacrifice millions to the corporate war-gods Raytheon and Lockheed Martin without thinking. We have unlocked the mysteries of spacetime and used them to do what? Blow each other up and boil water. We know more than ever and understand even less. We have forgotten the vital lesson of all past civilization which was respect for ancestors and reverence for the afterlife. And so we end up not losing both our past and our future, somewhat predictably. Our ancestors used the (literally) highest technology we can still come up with to communicate something to us today. And we just say ‘cool’ and ignore what they were saying. We would be wise to treat our elders with due respect, and listen openly and seriously. We who worship technology better recognize. When it comes to communicating across spacetime, the ancients had better technology.

Have I written more about this? Yes: