Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Winter – 2

Nature dies down in winter. Certainly, at those latitudes where the days become much shorter and the temperatures plummet. Both wind and rain seem to become more frequent. Snow. It is a period of rest and renewal after autumn has put on a final glorious display of colour. Animals adapt to this in one of three ways: some will eat and eat of the autumn bounty of, especially, fruit, putting on large fat reserves and surviving the winter in a state of hibernation, their heart-rates dropping to a scarcely believable one or two beats a minute, their bodies slowly using these fat reserves for the little energy required to maintain a flickering life through those months. Some migrate, seeking a warmer climate until spring returns. These animals are, due to the obvious logistics required to travel hundreds of miles to reach those more hospitable climes, the larger animals and many of the birds. Travel over those kinds of distances would be out of the question for the smaller ones. Others stay put and, in the case of the plant eaters, scratch out a meagre living on whatever leaves and grasses survive through the winter. The carnivores, of course, stay and try to catch them.

Our Neolithic ancestors’ life cycles would be attuned to this pattern too. Autumn must have been lived fast and furiously. In the same way our medieval ancestors worked long hours to bring in the harvests, Neolithic man and woman must have used all the dwindling daylight to bring in as much food and fuel and dry bedding as possible before the winter period. Then by the end of autumn gathering would have largely ceased and they would have moved into a winter rhythm of life.

But how did they get through winter? What of the food they had gathered? Presumably, they had no way of storing fruit – could any of it be dried? Was it fermented for drink? Or was it all eaten as soon as it was gathered, as though they were all so many dormice seeking to build up their reserves? And could this, in fact, have been a part of their strategy to get through those months? To eat and eat until the perishable foods were all gone, and then to stop all but the most essential activities. To expend as little energy as possible and stay as warm as they could. Spending as much time as possible asleep.

And yet, they would still need to eat, and so with dwindling food reserves they would slaughter any beasts kept for that purpose, possibly smoking the meat to enable it to keep for as long as possible. Hunting would continue and might, in some ways, become a little easier. With less vegetation around, there would be less cover for their prey, and in snow there would be clear tracks to follow. But presumably this prey would still need to be pursued, and this would use precious energy, unless they relied more upon pits and snares.

Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk

I have been posting a bit about walking, recently, what with my frustration at being unable to do a great deal of it after my foot operation.

Foolishly, I made reference to the following episode in a reply to someone on one of the ‘walking’ posts, and admitted I might write about it sometime. Well, take this as a Warning From Someone Who Learned The Hard Way.

Thirty years ago I lived and worked in Oman. I was a seismologist, working on seismic data for an oil exploration company – but before you all shout at me, my conscience is clear. I don’t think I was particularly good at it, and I don’t think my efforts contributed to anyone finding any oil.

*phew!*

I do worry that as a result of this post, though, someone will now contact me and say ‘Hello, Mick. I was a geophysicist in Muscat when you were there, and I remember that one of the projects you worked on found absolutely stonking amounts of oil!’ But I doubt it.

Anyway, let me set the scene.

I lived near Muscat, the capital, which lies on the north coast of Oman. Behind me, towards the interior, ran a line of high hills

It is a massive simplification, but just at this point the hills run east to west, parallel with the coast, and consist of a series of ridges (jebels) and valleys (wadis). So to cross them from north to south (or in the opposite direction) the traveller has to continually climb up and down for the entire journey.

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I bet you can already see where this is going.

When I had a few free hours, I would often walk out of my house, and up into the hills to just wander around and explore. As a result of this, I knew the first couple of wadis and jebels pretty well. There was a high, prominent jebel to the south, though, which was the final ridge before the land fell away to a wide stony plain, and I had never gone that far on foot up till then. This ridge was easy to spot, however, as there was a large microwave (radio) transmitter on top, and I knew it was the final ridge as we would often drive past it on the south side.

I had a day off.

I don’t know exactly what time of year it was, but it must have been in the ‘cooler’ season, because even I wouldn’t have been stupid enough to try when it was really hot.

Surely?

I didn’t even have a proper rucksack, I had a small roll-bag, which I slung uncomfortably over my shoulder. Inside, I had a single bottle of water, and a dozen small packaged juice drinks. I had a compass, but no map. I had a hat, I had a camera.

So, well-equipped and well-prepared, I set off.

The first couple of hours went well. I crossed two or three ridges and felt fine. I guess I should say at this point, that I was pretty fit. The project probably wasn’t an unreasonable one, by any means.

Certainly not for someone with the right equipment and supplies.

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I was probably just beginning to feel a bit hot and tired when I crested what I thought would be the penultimate ridge, only to find I was looking down on another two smaller ridges that I still had to cross before reaching the final large one.

And the large one was looking very large indeed!

I can be ridiculously, unreasonably, stubborn, at times. I remember that on the final ascent I had to force my legs to bend and stretch, to take each step, but the top was getting nearer and nearer and I wasn’t going to give in.

I made it.

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I enjoyed the view and the moment. It was, admittedly, very impressive and I knew I’d done pretty well to get there.

And really, all I needed to do then was to carry on down the south side of the ridge, walk another kilometre or two to the road I mentioned earlier, and hitch a lift back to Muscat.

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Have I mentioned I can be unreasonably stubborn?

I turned around and started heading down the north side towards home.

I could draw this out into a long dramatic story of my walk, but I’ll give you the abbreviated version.

I found I was in difficulty as soon as I had to go up the next hill. especially as I had finished all my drinks by then.

It took me several hours and more energy than I realised I had at one point, just to get to the final ridge. But at that point, I knew I no longer had the energy or strength for that last climb. I could not do it. Fortunately for me, I knew I could follow the valley for a mile or two east, where it would come out to the coast plain. So I turned and stumbled that way. By now, I was desperate to find some sort of shade, just for a moment, but there was nothing.

But I staggered along, and as the hills either side dropped down, I came to a cluster of buildings. I don’t know what exactly they were, but I staggered in through a doorway and an Indian working there took one look at me, sat me down and brought me water.

‘Slowly!’ I remember him saying, as I poured it down my throat. ‘Not good to drink too quick!’

I didn’t care. I drank it like a camel on steroids given twenty seconds to fill up. I got through an awful lot of water, but he made me sit and rest for a while before I went off again. I think he offered me food, which I refused, and I think he offered to find someone to drive me, but I don’t really remember too much from that point on. I did walk home eventually, though. I just hope I thanked him sufficiently.

It was not one of my more intelligent adventures.