In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that South American people could have reached the Polynesian islands before Christopher Columbus’s time. Using just the materials and technologies that were available to the people back then, he made the balsa raft Kon-Tiki, based on illustrations by Spanish conquistadors, and made the trip, proving it was possible. Recent DNA evidence seems to back him up.
Following that trip, Mr Heyerdahl recreated a reed boat found in Egyptian archaeology, to prove that the Egyptians could have reached South America. This connection was theorised due to the similarity between step pyramids in Egypt and South America. Following the advice of modern shipbuilders, he modified the design, which proved to be a big mistake. Ra I fell apart in the ocean.
Armed with the knowledge gained from experience for why the original design was the way it was, Mr Heyerdahl and his team built Ra II (the right way), and indeed proved that the Egyptians could have reached South America.
There was lots of extra interesting stuff in the book about anthropological similarities between ancient Egypt and some South American cultures, as well as finding exactly which cultures have built reed boats, when, and how easy it was for those people to do. It’s really interesting.
The book itself I found a bit dry, translations can be hard to convey the same kind of feel. So it was a bit of work, that was more to do with the style than the content.
Western culture has a notion of Progress that it clings to. Oversimplisticly, it says “What people used to think, do and believe was dumb, we know better now”. You can see it in religion (easy example, after splitting from the Roman church, Luther changed some stuff but still kept some other stuff pretty dear, a lot of which has now disappeared even from the Lutheran tradition). You can see it in politics and society, how many times have you heard “This is the 21st Century, we don’t do that kind of thing any more!” (as they protest someone else doing “that kind of thing”, thus rendering their argument ridiculous). Sometimes it seems we’re quick to remove parts of the walls and parts of the foundation of the house, more as time goes on, without any thought to whether this might end up having negative effects on those who happen to be in the house.
In short: people in previous generations were a lot smarter than we think: we could stand to learn some stuff from them.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Older Is Always Better, just that we’re quick to disregard what those who came before us have to say, without any real effort to understand the underlying Whys and Wherefores.
This book contains some vivid examples of this, and seems to be easy to explain and describe.
Comment below with your favourite stories of ancient wisdom putting today’s to shame.