Plato Prehistorian: 10,000 to 5,000 B.C. Myth, Religion, Archeology by Mary Settegast

Occasionally one comes across a book that is clearly a labor of love: it combines passionate writing with careful research and exquisite layout. Mary Settegast’s Plato Prehistorian is one of these books. First published in 1986, the book has stealthily worked its way into the consciousness of historians and archeologists, and is now highly regarded as a trailblazing work that manages to cross-pollinate fields without raising hackles.

The book has tremendous scope, ranging widely in time and space. It is an attempt to peer into the deep past, beyond the Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Egyptians, about whom we know so much because of the texts they left behind. Settegast contends that the humans of the Neolithic period were much more accomplished than we normally give them credit for. In the introduction, she says:

“The more we learn about early man, the more difficult it is to describe him as primitive. Even with the new and rightly placed appreciation of the so-called primitive peoples of today, it is becoming increasingly clear that at least some of the cultures of the Old Stone Age were both other and more than the gatherer-hunter societies of recent times, and their members very far indeed from the savage creatures that all Paleolithic men were once assumed to be.

“As a result, the existing model of prehistory — the view that sees the development of human culture as a unilinear series of stages, rising from primitive Upper Paleolithic hunting and foraging, to Neolithic farming villages, to the high civilizations of the Bronze Age and ultimately to the urban societies of today — is losing its fundamental premise.”

As the title suggests, the book’s starting point is one of the foundational figures of Western thought: Plato. Alfred North Whitehead called all of philosophy “footnotes to Plato,” and the breadth of his ideas continues to astonish and nourish modern thinkers. Though much of Plato’s work deals with philosophical questions, such as his investigations into forms and meaning, he also wrote extensively about history. In some of his most intriguing passages, he discusses very ancient history, going back 9,000 years and more. The most famous of these passages reference Atlantis, which Plato claimed was an island beyond the “Pillars of Hercules” (commonly regarded as the Straits of Gibraltar). He also referred to a massive war between those who dwelt outside the Pillars, and those within the Mediterranean basin.

In the book, Settegast takes Plato seriously, and uses a number of techniques, including archeology and mythology, to investigate his assertions. She begins by taking a long look at the Magdalenian period, which produced the extraordinary paintings in the Lascaux caves. Though the paintings have been justly lauded as a pinnacle of ancient art, their meaning has remained elusive. Settegast proposes that many of the recurrent symbols throughout the caves are in fact a rudimentary writing system, and bear similarities to later runic scripts. She suggests that the Magdalenians, whose artifacts are found along western North Africa as well as the Iberian peninsula, are in fact the remnants of Plato’s Atlantic kingdom.

By examining and comparing artifacts from different eras across North Africa and into Southwest Asia, Settegast is able to draw a broad but convincing outline of the movements of peoples throughout the region. Her investigations show that around 9,000 BCE, there was a sudden influx of North Africans to present-day Palestine. At this time, abruptly, skulls of a different shape (the Gracile Proto-Mediterranean type), which have the bottom incisors knocked out, show up in gravesites. Removal of the bottom two incisors was a ritual common to North African and Saharan peoples, and is still prevalent among Nilo-Saharan groups such as the Nuer and Dinka. Across North Africa and into Southwest Asia at this time, “tanged-point” arrowheads start to appear in great numbers. These factors coincide with a sudden prevalence of running figures with bows in the rock paintings throughout the region. A final piece of the puzzle is the presence of layers of burned material at numerous sites across North Africa and southward up the Nile. Put all this evidence together, and it seems clear that some sort of widespread conflict was going on at this time period, which could very well relate to Plato’s war.

Settegast goes into great detail describing Çatal Hüyük, Jericho, and other archeological sites of the Middle East, demonstrating that the inhabitants of the ancient cities were in fact highly skilled artists and potters, and had developed a highly evolved agriculturally based existence. James Mellaart, the first archeologist at Çatal Hüyük, commented that it descended from “an Upper Paleolithic culture, probably Anatolian, of which hardly anything is known.” Unfortunately, Plato Prehistorian came out before the even more ancient sites of Nevalı Çori and Göbekli Tepe were discovered. Evidence from those sites would seem to further substantiate Settegast’s claims that the ancient world was much more advanced than we commonly give it credit for.

The book is not only beautifully written and assiduously researched; it is also gorgeously illustrated by Settegast herself. The drawings, in black, tan, and white, serve to bolster Settegast’s contentions more gracefully than any photograph could.

[ image: http://archeologie.culture.fr ]

Author of No Solid Ground: Renewable Contentment and Sustainable Happiness in an Age of Uncertainty.