The Button Age & Other Fallacies

Posted on March 25, 2011


If our civilization were erased by time, and nothing remained but buttons, hair pins and the nails in our shoes, what would future civilizations say about us?  I’m sure they would have clever ways of interpreting the evidence which would milk from it some remarkable insights about us and our times.  But the picture would also be inevitably thin, fragmented, and misleading.

Having so little evidence to work with and interpret, all sense of nuance and complexity would be lost.  We’d be the button/hair pin/shoe nail people, and depictions of us would always include these items.  Parodies of us would always include jokes about shoe nails and hair pins.  Our clothes would always be buttoned.  Our concerns would always be button/hair pin/shoe nail concerns.  Our age would be known as the Button Age.

And, of course, most of it would be drivel.

Which pretty well fits what we know about the so-called stone age.  According to a recent article by Katherine Harmon in Scientific American,

Better preserved ancient Homo sapiens, such as those found frozen, reveal that stone tools might represent little more than 5 percent of a culture’s material relics. The rest, whether textiles or other more delicate artifacts, would have been destroyed by time…

And Harmon is only talking about material artifacts, which again represent only a portion of a culture.  Since the invention of writing, literate cultures have been preserving some part of their non-material culture in written records, but for preliterate cultures this could not happen.

We don’t know what people of the early human past sang.  We don’t know the stories they told, and the games they played as children.  We don’t know their marriage practices or their laws.  In fact we know almost nothing except what their stone tools and artifacts tell us, and we’re not entirely sure about that.

But lack of knowledge is not knowledge.  We shouldn’t interpret what we don’t know.  We shouldn’t assume that because we don’t know about something, that there is no remaining evidence of something, that it wasn’t there.

We have to be careful to remember that human beings were there, not just stone artifacts, and that despite all the differences of time, geography and culture, human beings and human culture are never simple.

If people long ago seem simple to us, that is because our understanding is simple, that’s all.

There was no Stone Age.  There was just humanity learning as it went along, preserving what it had learned and building on it.  The humanity of the deep past—as is becoming clearer the more we learn—had the same capacities as the humanity of today.

A student may eventually master his or her subject, and gain a new name and title because of it, but yet the student and the master are the same.

The people of the so-called “stone age” were the same people as us merely caught at an earlier stage of the human biography.


For an interesting discussion about what we knew or just assumed about the Clovis culture in North America, the Katherine Harmon article is quite illuminating.

See People Were Chipping Stone Tools in Texas More Than 15,000 Years Ago – Scientific American