How could people in the past not have known or guessed these things?!

I was inspired by this part of a post:

I see such claims all the time, and they just don’t wash when even a little bit of observation could dispel the myth.

How could a person not notice that buffalo mate(mammals so with recognizable genitals no less) and give birth to calves just like humans? How could a hunter miss this?

Grass growing from seed, you can see seeds sprouting all the time! If I as a child knew seed=plant in a city how could a person who lived in the outdoors not observe this?

The Earth being round, you can see the curvature of the Earth from a mountain!

Genetics and heredity, anyone doing animal or plant husbandry should have a basic idea of this. Hell no one ever noticed that humans tended to resemble their parents? They may not have used the word DNA, but they had the general idea.

Maggots spontaneously generating from dead tissue, I think this one is sort of an issue where it made no difference in your life back then. I mean who cares if maggot eggs are already in meat or not, even meat kept in an airtight container will still be rotten.

I don’t think that’s the point. They’ve seen it, but it doesn’t explain to them when or why or where the buffalo will be there for them to hunt. They need explanations for why there aren’t any buffalo at times, and why there are at other times.

I’m sure they did, but like the buffalo, it doesn’t explain why sometimes there are enough plants, and not other times. It doesn’t explain at all why sometimes there are one kind of plant, and other times another kind. Their attempts to understand the buffalo have probably left a little disappointed in observable causation. It’s easier to understand nature as a supernatural force with powers to control plants and animals than to try control those things themselves. And their attempts would likely be unsuccessful. Have you ever tried to collect wild seeds and produce a crop from them in primitive conditions?

Ok, it’s obviously round, and bumpy and a little arched maybe, but basically flat, like the back of a turtle.

They notice things like that. But they also notice children don’t always resemble their parents. Clearly that means something mysterious and beyond human comprehension is happening. Also, HGs aren’t engaged in animal or plant husbandry. That’s why they have to H and G to stay alive.

Which isn’t much different from the other points. If they live their lives considering the buffalo and the plants to come and go at the whims of unseen powers why would it make a difference what buffalo babies and plant seeds are doing?

How could they not know? If you consider most of your examples and raise a child by consistently teaching them alternative theories, the child tends to believe what is being taught. Superstition, magic or an easy explanation such as “the world is flat and if you don’t believe me go stand by the seashore look out to the ocean and see for yourself”, would be enough to convince a child of this “truth” and they carry it through adulthood.


Yeah. What the fuck is a HG?

I’m guessing “Hunter-Gatherer.”

Hunter gatherer. I think. It works, anyway.

ETA: a minute. One dang minute. :wink:

Thanks. As for the earth being round- how would you expect a hunter gatherer to know that? There was an active Flat Earth Society in the 20th Century. I don’t know that you can expect to see curvature from a mountain. Things disappearing over the horizon would be explained as distance.

You may be confusing Native American spirituality for what was observed when it comes to bison, as it sounds close to their spiritual views of other animals such as bears.

I’m not sure about Bison but bears spiritually come from ‘blobs’ that shape themselves into bear form. Some may say that is representative of insight given into the development process inside the womb, how’d they know that? That’s spirituality for ya!

As for bison in a spiritual sense they do ‘appear magically’ from a ‘cave’ of sorts, the birth canal. Again it lines up with a spiritual view that describes a real process.

Look at geo-centrism vs. helio-centrism. For over a thousand years, western civilization acknowledged that the math for a geocentric approach did match observations - e.g., retrograde motion, etc. Many considered alternate models but those were tamped down by dogma and persecution.

Why wouldn’t there be a bit of the same going on here? If HG’s (as they say :)) have a narrative about their world, creation, how food should be obtained and consumed - then maybe most simply *can’t *and/or *choose not to *see what you declare is self-evident.

People in the past did work these things out - that’s how we know them now. For any given item of human knowledge, there had to be a moment when it was first realised - and before that, it was unknown, and yet the people in the two generations implicated were never measurably different from one another, except that one lot didn’t work it out, and the other did.

Seeing what you want or expect to see is a huge problem even in modern scientific experiments. If it weren’t, there would be no need for double-blind studies and the like. Hunter-gatherers presumably had some of the same cognitive biases that we do, and didn’t know how to design experiments or observations to correct for those biases. Europeans didn’t have any recorded blind experiments until the late 1700s.

I have a hard time thinking of these things objectively because I (and I’m guessing the rest of us) were raised with globes in the classroom and planting marigold seeds in first grade and doing Mendel squares in junior high.

Maybe some guy atop a mountain thought “Hey, this looks like a sphere” but… so what? He wasn’t going to circumnavigate the globe. It was pretty useless knowledge to him when most of his time was occupied with more important things. And most people don’t climb mountains.

How long would it take me to noodle out the reproduce cycle of plants if I was raised by wolves in the middle of nowhere? Who knows? I wouldn’t just assume that it would ever occur to me to even spend time on it, much less go around looking for other wolf-children to exchange botany notes with.

Edit: Huh. I guess they’re called Punnett squares.

Or falling off the edge! Sure, I see the curve there, that’s the circumference of our flat-circle planet. (is what a hunter-gatherer might say)

Oh god, do we have to do this again?

No, you cannot see the “curvature of the earth” from a mountain. You see a round horizon, which is exactly what you would see on a flat earth.

The only way to see the “curvature of the earth” from a mountain is to see very tall, very distant objects disappearing over the horizon feet first. Have you ever done that?

I’m guessing you knew because somebody told you.

He could have seen it. It’s easy to look down and see a seed sprouting. Then what do you do? You’re standing in a field of grass, why would you find anything interesting or useful about a grass seedling sprouting in a field of grass? You’ll probably see if it tastes good.

There is a long path from knowing that plants grow from seeds to agriculture. You have to consider that it’s possible to collect seeds and plant them somewhere else. If you imagine that, then you have know when to collect the seeds. Then you have to know how to dry them properly so they don’t rot. Then you have to avoid eating them yourself or letting anything else eat them. Then you have to know where to plant them, because you’re not going to do it where the plants are already growing, there isn’t any need. Then you have to know how to plant them. Then you move away from where you planted them because you’re a HG and you don’t hang around places waiting for plants to grow. And if you do return months later, you find nothing because the plants probably didn’t grow or were eaten by something or someone else if they did grow. And all this time the rest of the tribe is laughing their asses off at your dumb idea. That isn’t even half of it.

There are a few complicating factors here.

One, how obvious is this effect when all the people in your tribe, or all the animals in your herd, are at least third or fourth cousins to each other? You might just see that all the people in your tribe resemble each other. Children don’t always look more like their parents than they do like more distant relatives. My niece looks more like me than she looks like her mother.

Two, there are recessive genes. Two brown-eyed parents can have a blue-eyed child.

Three, this assumes you know the parentage of every person in your tribe or every animal in your herd. In reality, you know who the mother is, but paternity might not be as certain. Not all women are sexually faithful to their partners 100% of the time. You might not have 100% control over which animals in your herd mate with which.

Four, you have the same observation biases you have in observing other things. If you think babies born during a full moon are going to have a certain physical or mental characteristic, and you know which babies were born during a full moon, you’re likely to think you see that characteristic in those babies and not in others, even if that characteristic is equally common in babies born at all phases of the moon. You don’t know how to set up a properly unbiased scientific experiment, or why you would want to do that.

In the 11 months between mating and giving birth, the people also saw the bison walking, eating, pooping, charging each other, any number of behaviors. How are they supposed to know which one formed the babby?

The grass grew, the seeds were formed, the wind and rains came and scattered the seed, the seed germinates, roots form. Some plants spread with runners, not seeds. You’re expecting the scientific method for people who had to work all day just to survive. I’d guess the most that happened might be to have someone say, “hmmm…look at that grain growing where I spilled some of the seed I gathered to make gruel with. The spirit of the plant must live in seeds.”

Well, people are used to the fact that there are optical illusions. The earth appears to curve on the horizon. But when they move in that direction, it’s still flat. They never come to the curve. So it must be flat.

Way before Mendel, back in the old testament, Jacob selectively bred sheep and goats to get off-colored ones. Of course, by that time they weren’t hunter-gatherers.

You got me there - you’re basically saying that there’s no point to that statement?

I think all in all you’re forgetting that people by and large believe what they’re taught. Look at this thread about North Korea. You seem to expect that primitive peoples are going to just reject everything they’re taught. Even modern-day people don’t do that all that often.


The correct theory of how something works doesn’t always win out over alternative theories, or, if it does, it doesn’t always do so immediately. Sometimes not for centuries. Something like the germ theory of disease was first proposed in 1546, but people were still taking other theories of disease seriously in the mid-nineteenth century. Experiments were being done in the 1660s that should have disproved spontaneous generation, but Pasteur still felt the need to disprove it in the late nineteenth century. Experiments proving that dowsing doesn’t work started being done in 1641, but you can still find people who believe in dowsing today. And these things all happened in literate societies. Information transfer of new theories and evidence in favor of them, or evidence that old theories are now known to be untrue, is going to be even less efficient in a non-literate society.