Puranic Time and the Archeological Record
Presented at World Archaeological Congress 3, December 4–11, 1994, New Delhi,
Published as chapter 3 in the the peer-reviewed conference proceedingd volume
Time and Archaeology, edited by Tim Murray, Routledge, London (1999).
Michael A. Cremo, Research Associate in History and Philosophy of Science,
9701 Venice Blvd. Suite 5, Los Angeles, CA 90034, USA, phone (310) 837-5283,
fax (310) 837-1056, email firstname.lastname@example.org
© 1996 by Michael A. Cremo. All rights reserved
The time concept of modern archeology, and modern anthropology in general,
resembles the general cosmological-historical time concept of Europe's Judaeo-Christian
culture. Differing from the cyclical cosmological-historical time concepts
of the early Greeks in Europe, and the Indians and others in Asia, the Judaeo-
Christian cosmological-historical time concept is linear and progressive.
Modern archeology also shares with Judaeo-Christian theology the idea that
humans appear after the other major species. The author subjectively positions
himself within the Vaishnava Hindu worldview, and from this perspective offers
a radical critique of modern generalizations about human origins and antiquity.
Hindu historical literatures, particularly the Puranas and Ithihasas, place
human existence in the context of repeating time cycles called yugas and kalpas,
lasting hundreds of millions of years. During this entire time, according
to the Puranic accounts, humans coexisted with creatures in some ways resembling
the earlier toolmaking hominids of modern evolutionary accounts. If one were
to take the Puranic record as objectively true, and also take into account
the generally admitted imperfection and complexity of the archeological and
anthropological record, one could make the following prediction. The strata
of the earth, extending back hundreds of millions of years, should yield a
bewildering mixture of hominid bones, some anatomically modern human and some
not, as well as a similarly bewildering variety of artifacts, some displaying
a high level of artistry and others not. Given the linear progressivist preconceptions
of generations of archeologists and anthropologists, one could also predict
that this mixture of bones and artifacts would be edited to conform to their
deeply rooted linear-progressive time concepts. A careful study of the
archeological record, and the history of archeology itself, broadly confirms
these two predictions. Linear-progressivist time concepts thus pose a substantial
barrier to truly objective evaluation of the archeological record and to rational
theory- building in the area of human origins and antiquity.
The practically employed time concept of the modern
historical scientist, including the archeologist, strikingly resembles the
traditional Judaeo-Christian time concept. And it strikingly differs from
that of the ancient Greeks and Indians.
This observation is, of course, an extreme
generalization. In any culture, the common people may make use of various
time concepts, linear and cyclical. And among the great thinkers of any given
period, there may be many competing views of both cyclical and linear time.
This was certainly true of the ancient Greeks. It can nevertheless be safely
said that the cosmological concepts several of the most prominent Greek thinkers
involved a cyclic or episodic time similar to that found in the Puranic literatures
of India. For example, we find in Hesiod's Works and Days (129-23406-201)
a series of ages (gold, silver, bronze, heroic, and iron) similar to the Indian
yugas. In both systems, the quality of human life gets progressively worse
with each passing age. In On Nature (Fragment 17) Empedocles speaks of cosmic
time cycles. In Plato's dialogues there are descriptions of revolving time
(Timaeus 38 a) and recurring catastrophes that destroy or nearly destroy human
civilization (Politicus 268 d ff). Aristotle said in many places in his works
that the arts and sciences had been discovered many times in the past (Metaphysics
1074 b 10, Politics 1329 b 25) In the teachings of Pythagoras, Plato, and
Empedocles regarding transmigration of souls, this cyclical pattern is extended
to individual psychophysical existence.
When Judaeo-Christian civilization arose in Europe,
another kind of time became prominent. This time has been characterized as
linear and vectorial. Broadly speaking, this time concept involves a
unique act of cosmic creation, a unique appearance of the human kind, and
a unique history of salvation, culminating in a unique denouement in the form
of a last judgement. The drama occurs only once. Individually, human life
mirrored this process; with some exceptions, orthodox Christian theologians
did not accept transmigration of the soul.
Modern historical sciences share the basic Judaeo-Christian
assumptions about time. The universe we inhabit is a unique occurrence. Humans
have arisen once on this planet. The history of our ancestors is regarded
as a unique though unpredestined evolutionary pathway. The future pathway
of our species is also unique. Although this pathway is officially unpredictable,
the myths of science project a possible overcoming of death by biomedical
science and mastery over the entire universe by evolving, space-traveling
humans. One group, the Santa Fe Institute, sponsor of several conferences
on "artificial life," predicts the transferal of human intelligence into machines
and computers displaying the complex symptoms of living things (Langton 1991,
p.xv) "Artificial life" thus becomes the ultimate transfiguring salvation
of our species.
One is tempted to propose that the modern human
evolutionary account is a Judaeo-Christian heterodoxy, which covertly retains
fundamental structures of Judaeo-Christian cosmology, salvation history, and
eschatology while overtly dispensing with the scriptural account of divine
intervention in the origin of species, including our own. This is similar
to the case of Buddhism as Hindu heterodoxy. Dispensing with the Hindu scriptures
and God concepts, Buddhism nevertheless retained basic Hindu cosmological
assumptions such as cyclical time, transmigration, and karma.
Another thing the modern human evolutionary
account has in common with the earlier Christian account is that humans appear
after the other life forms. In Genesis, God creates the plants, animals, and
birds before human beings. For strict literalists, the time interval is short--humans
are created on the last of six of our present solar days. Others have taken
the Genesis days as ages. For example, around the time of Darwin European
scientists with strong Christian leanings proposed that God had gradually
brought into existence various species throughout the ages of geological
time until the perfected earth was ready to receive human beings (Grayson
1983). In modern evolutionary accounts, anatomically modern humans retain
their position as the most recent major species to occur on this planet, having
evolved from preceding hominids within the past 100,000 or so years. And
despite the attempts of prominent evolutionary theorists and spokespersons
to counteract the tendency, even among evolution scientists, to express this
appearance in teleological fashion (Gould 1977, p. 14), the idea that humans
are the crowning glory of the evolutionary process still has a strong hold
on the public and scientific minds. Although anatomically modern humans are
given an age of about 100,000 years, modern archeologists and anthropologists,
in common with Judaeo-Christian accounts, give civilization an age of a few
thousand years, and, again in common with Judaeo- Christian accounts, place
its earliest occurrence in the Middle East.
I do not here categorically assert a direct causal
link between earlier Judeao-Christian ideas and those of the modern historical
sciences. Demonstrating that, as Edward B. Davis (1994) points out in his
review of recent works on this subject, needs much more careful documentation
than has yet been provided. But the many common features of the time concepts
of the two knowledge systems suggest these causal links do exist, and that
it would be fruitful to trace connections in sufficient detail to satisfactorily
I do, however, propose that the tacitly accepted
and hence critically unexamined time concepts of the modern human sciences,
whether or not causally linked with Judaeo-Christian concepts, pose a significant
unrecognized influence on interpretation of the archeological and anthropological
record. To demonstrate how this might be true, I shall introduce my own experience
in evaluating this record from the alien standpoint of the cyclical time concepts
and accounts of human origins found in the Puranas and Itihasas of India.
My subjective path of learning has led me to take
the Vaishnava tradition of India as my primary guide to life and the study
of the visible universe and what may lie beyond. For the past century or so,
it has been considered quite unreasonable to bring concepts from religious
texts directly into the realm of the scientific study of nature. Indeed, many
introductory anthropology and archeology texts make a clear distinction between
"scientific" and "religious" ways of knowing, relegating the latter to the
status of unsupported belief, with little or no utility in the objective study
of nature (see, for example, Stein and Rowe 1993, chapter 2). Some texts
even go so far as to boast that this view has been upheld by the United States
Supreme Court (Stein and Rowe 1993, p. 37), as if the state were the best
and final arbiter of intellectual controversy. But I propose that total
hostility to religious views of nature in science is unreasonable, especially
for the modern historical sciences. Despite their pretensions to areligious
objectivity, practitioners unconsciously retain or incorporate into their
workings many Judaeo-Christian cosmological concepts, especially concerning
time, and implicitly employ them in their day to day work of observation and
theory building. In this sense, modern evolutionists share some intellectual
territory with their Fundamentalist Christian antagonists.
But there are other ways to comprehend historical
processes in nature. How this is so can be graphically sensed if one performs
the mental experiment of looking at the world from a radically different time
perspective--the Puranic time concept of India. I am not alone in suggesting
this. Gene Sager, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Palomar
College in California, wrote in an unpublished review of my book Forbidden
Archeology (Cremo and Thompson 1993): "As a scholar in the field of comparative
religion, I have sometimes challenged scientists by offering a cyclical or
spiral model for studying human history, based on the Vedic concept of the
kalpa. Few Western scientists are open to the possibility of sorting out the
data in terms of such a model. I am not proposing that the Vedic model is
true....However, the question remains, does the relatively short, linear model
prove to be adequate? I believe Forbidden Archeology offers a well researched
challenge. If we are to meet this challenge, we need to practice open-mindedness
and proceed in a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary fashion" (personal communication,
1993). The World Archeological Congress provides a suitable forum for such
cross-cultural, interdisciplinary dialogue.
This cyclical time of the Puranas operates only
within the material cosmos. Beyond the material cosmos lies the spiritual
sky, or brahmajyoti. Innumerable spiritual planets float in this spiritual
sky, where material time, in the form of yuga cycles, does not act.
Each yuga cycle is composed of 4 yugas. The first,
the Satya-yuga lasts 4800 years of the demigods. The second, the Treta-yuga,
lasts 3600 years of the demigods. The third, the Dvapara-yuga, lasts 2400
years of the demigods. And the fourth, Kali-yuga, lasts 1200 years of the
demigods (Bhagavata Purana 3.11.19). Since the demigod year is equivalent
to 360 earths years (Bhaktivedanta Swami 1973, p. 102), the lengths of the
yugas in earth years are, according to standard Vaishnava commentaries, 432,000
years for the Kali-yuga, 864,000 years for the Dvapara-yuga, 1,296,000 years
for the Treta-yuga, and 1,728,000 years for the Satya-yuga. This gives
a total of 4,320,000 years for the entire yuga cycle. One thousand of such
cycles, lasting 4,320,000,000 years, comprises one day of Brahma, the
demigod who governs this universe. A day of Brahma is also called a kalpa.
Each of Brahma's nights lasts a similar period of time. Life is only manifest
on earth during the day of Brahma. With the onset of Brahma's night, the entire
universe is devastated and plunged into darkness. When another day of Brahma
begins, life again becomes manifest.
Each day of Brahma is divided into 14 manvatara
periods, each one lasting 71 yuga cycles. Preceding the first and following
each manvatara period is a juncture (sandhya) the length of a Satya-yuga (1,728,000)
years. Typically, each manvantara period ends with a partial devastation.
According to Puranic accounts, we are now in the twenty-eight yuga cycle
of the seventh manvatara period of the present day of Brahma. This would
give the inhabited earth an age of about 2 billion years. Interestingly enough,
the oldest undisputed organisms recognized by paleontologists--algae fossils
like those from the Gunflint formation in Canada--are just about that old
(Stewart 1983, p. 30). Altogether, 453 yuga cycles have elapsed since this
day of Brahma began. Each yuga cycle involves a progression from a golden
age of peace and spiritual progress to a final age of violence and spiritual
degradation. At the end of each Kali-yuga, the earth is practically depopulated.
During the yuga cycles, human species coexist with
other humanlike species. For example, in the Bhagavata Purana (9.10.20)
we find the divine avatara Ramacandra conquering Ravana's kingdom Lanka with
the aid of intelligent forest dwelling monkey men who fought Ravana's well-equipped
soldiers with trees and stones. This occurred in the Treta-yuga, about 1 million
Given the cycle of yugas, the periodic devastations
at the end of each manvatara, and the coexistence of civilized human beings
with creatures in some ways resembling the human ancestors of modern evolutionary
accounts, what predictions might the Puranic account give regarding the archeological
record? Before answering this question, we must also consider the general
imperfection of the fossil record (Raup and Stanley 1971). Hominid fossils
in particular are extremely rare. Furthermore, only a small fraction
of the sedimentary layers deposited during the course of the earth's history
have survived erosion and other destructive geological processes (Van Andel
Taking the above into account, I propose the Puranic
view of time and history predicts a sparse but bewildering mixture of hominid
fossils, some anatomically modern and some not, going back tens and even hundreds
of millions of years and occurring at locations all over the world. It also
predicts a more numerous but similarly bewildering mixture of stone tools
and other artifacts, some showing a high level of technical ability and others
not. And, given the cognitive biases of the majority of workers in the fields
of archeology and anthropology over the past 150 years, we might also predict
that this bewildering mixture of fossils and artifacts would be edited to
conform with a linear, progressive view of human origins. A careful investigation
of published reports by myself and Richard Thompson (1993) offers confirmation
of these two predictions. What follows is only a sample of the total body
of evidence catalogued in our lengthy book. The citations given are for the
single reports that best identify particular finds. Detailed analysis and
additional reports cited elsewhere (Cremo and Thompson 1993) offer strong
confirmation of the authenticity and antiquity of these discoveries.
Incised and carved mammal bones are reported
from the Pliocene (Desnoyers 1863, Laussedat 1868, Capellini 1877) and Miocene
(Garrigou and Filhol 1868, von Ducker 1873). Additional reports of incised
bones from the Pliocene and Miocene may be found an extensive review by the
overly skeptical de Mortillet (1883). Scientists have also reported pierced
shark teeth from the Pliocene (Charlesworth 1873), artistically carved bone
from the Miocene (Calvert 1874) and artistically carved shell from the Pliocene
(Stopes 1881). Carved mammal bones reported by Moir (1917) could be
as old as the Eocene.
Very crude stone tools occur in the Middle Pliocene
(Prestwich 1892) and from perhaps as far back as the Eocene (Moir 1927, Breuil
1910, especially p. 402). One will note that most of these discoveries are
from the nineteenth century. But such artifacts are still being found. Crude
stone tools have recently be reported from the Pliocene of Pakistan (Bunney
1987), Siberia (Daniloff and Kopf 1986), and India (Sankhyan 1981). Given
the current view that toolmaking hominids did not leave their African center
of origin until about 1 million years ago, these artifacts are somewhat anomalous,
what to speak of a pebble tool from the Miocene of India (Prasad 1982).
More advanced stone tools occur in the Oligocene
of Europe (Rutot 1907), the Miocene of Europe (Ribeiro 1873, Bourgeois 1873,
Verworn 1905), the Miocene of Asia (Noetling 1894), and the Pliocene of South
America (F. Ameghino 1908, C. Ameghino 1915). In North America, advanced stone
tools occur in California deposits ranging from Pliocene to Miocene in age
(Whitney 1880). An interesting slingstone, at least Pliocene and perhaps Eocene
in age, comes from England (Moir 1929, p. 63).
More advanced artifacts have also been reported
in scientific and nonscientific publications. These include an iron nail in
Devonian Sandstone (Brewster 1844), a gold thread in Carboniferous stone (Times
of London, June 22, 1844), a metallic vase in Precambrian stone (Scientific
American, June 5, 1852), and a chalk ball from the Eocene (Melleville 1862),
a Pliocene clay statue (Wright 1912, pp. 266-69), metallic tubes in Cretaceous
chalk (Corliss 1978, pp. 652-53), and a grooved metallic sphere from the Precambrian
(Jimison 1982). The following objects have been reported from Carboniferious
coal: a gold chain (The Morrisonville Times, of Illinois, U.S.A., June
11, 1891), artistically carved stone (Daily News of Omaha, U.S.A., April
2, 1897), an iron cup (Rusch 1971), and stone block walls (Steiger 1979,
Human skeletal remains described as anatomically
modern occur in the Middle Pleistocene of Europe (Newton 1895, Bertrand 1868,
de Mortillet 1883). These cases are favorably reviewed by Keith (1928). Other
anatomically modern human skeletal remains occur in the Early and Middle Pleistocene
of Africa (Reck 1914, L. Leakey 1960d, Zuckerman 1954, p. 310; Patterson
and Howells 1967, Senut 1981, R. Leakey 1973), the Early Middle Pleistocene
of Java (Day and Molleson 1973), the Early Pleistocene of South America (Hrdlicka
1912, pp. 319-44), the Pliocene of South America (Hrdlicka 1912, p.
346; Boman 1921, pp. 341-42)), the Pliocene of England (Osborn 1921,
pp. 567-69), the Pliocene of Italy (Ragazzoni 1880, Issel 1868). the Miocene
of France and the Eocene of Switzerland (de Mortillet 1883, p. 72), and even
the Carboniferous of North America (The Geologist 1862). Several discoveries
from California gold mines range from Pliocene to Eocene (Whitney 1880).
Some of these bones have been subjected to chemical and radiometric tests
that have yielded ages younger than suggested by their stratigraphical position.
But when the unreliabilities and weaknesses of the testing procedures are
measured against the very compelling stratigraphic observations of the discoverers,
it is not at all clear that the original age attributions should be disarded
(Cremo and Thompson 1993, 753- 794).
Humanlike footprints have been found in the Carboniferous
of North America (Burroughs 1938), the Jurassic of Central Asia (Moscow News
1983, no.4, p. 10), and the Pliocene of Africa (M. Leakey 1979). Shoe
prints have been reported from the Cambrian (Meister 1968) and the Triassic
In the course of negotiating a fashionable consensus
that anatomically modern humans evolved from less advanced hominids in the
Late Pleistocene, scientists gradually rendered unfashionable the considerable
body of compelling contradictory evidence summarized above. It thus became
unworthy of discussion in knowing circles. Richard Thompson and I have concluded
(1993) that the muting of this evidence was accomplished by application of
a double standard, whereby favored evidence was exempted from the severely
skeptical scrutiny to which unfavored evidence was subjected.
One example from the many that could be cited to
demonstrate the operation of linear progressive preconceptions in the editing
of the archeological record is the case of the auriferous gravel finds in
California. During the days of the California Gold Rush, starting in the 1850s,
miners discovered many anatomically modern human bones and advanced stone
implements in mineshafts sunk deeply into deposits of gold-bearing gravels
capped by thick lava flows (Whitney 1880). The gravels beneath the lava were
from 9 to 55 million years old, according to modern geological reports (Slemmons
1966). These discoveries were reported to the world of science by J. D. Whitney,
state geologist of California. in a monograph published by the Peabody Museum
of Natural History at Harvard University. From the evidence he compiled,
Whitney came to a nonprogressivist view of human origins--the fossil evidence
he reported indicated that the humans of the distant past were like those
of the present.
To this W. H. Holmes (1899, p. 424) of the Smithsonian
Institution replied: "Perhaps if Professor Whitney had fully appreciated the
story of human evolution as it is understood today, he would have hesitated
to announce the conclusions formulated, notwithstanding the imposing array
of testimony with which he was confronted." This attitude is still prominent
today. In their college textbook, Stein and Rowe assert that "scientific statements
are never considered absolute" (1993, p. 41). But they also make this very
absolute statement: "Some people have assumed that humans have always been
the way they are today. Anthropologists are convinced that human beings...have
changed over time in response to changing conditions. So one aim of the anthropologist
is to find evidence for evolution and to generate theories about it." Apparently,
an anthropologist, by definition, can have no other view or purpose. Keep
in mind, however, that this absolute commitment to a linear progressive model
of human origins, ostensibly areligious, may have deep roots in Judaeo-
One of the things Holmes found especially hard
to accept was the similarity of the purportedly very ancient stone implements
to those of the modern Indians. He wondered (1899, pp. 451-52) how anyone
could take seriously the idea that "the implements of a Tertiary race should
have been left in the bed of a Tertiary torrent to be brought out as good
as new, after the lapse of vast periods of time, into the camp of a modern
community using identical forms?" The similarity could be explained
in several ways, but one possible explanation is the repeated appearance in
the same geographical region of humans with particular cultural attributes
in the course of cyclical time. The suggestion that such a thing could
happen is bound to strike those who see humans as the recent result of a long
and unique series of evolutionary changes in the hominid line as absurd--so
absurd as to prevent them from considering any evidence as potentially supporting
a cyclical interpretation of human history.
It is noteworthy, however, that a fairly openminded
modern archeologist, when confronted with the evidence catalogued in my book,
himself brought up, in a somewhat doubting manner, the possibility of a cyclical
interpretation of human history to explain its occurrence. George F. Carter,
noted for his controversial views on early man in North America, wrote to
me on January 26, 1994: "If your table on p. 391 were correct, then the minimum
age for the artifacts at Table Mountain would be 9 million [years old]. Would
you think then of a different creation--[one that] disappeared--and then a
new start? Would it simply replicate the archeology of California 9 million
years later? Or the inverse. Would the Californians 9 million years later
replicate the materials under Table Mountain?"
That is exactly what I would propose--that in the
course of cyclic time, humans with a culture resembling that of modern North
American Indians did in fact appear in California millions of years ago, perhaps
several times. "I find great difficulty with that line of reasoning," confessed
Carter. But that difficulty, which encumbers the minds of most archeologists
and anthropologists, may be the result of a rarely recognized and even more
rarely questioned commitment to a culturally acquired linear progressive
It would, therefore, be worthwhile to inspect the
archeological record through other time lenses, such as the Puranic lens.
Many will take my proposal as a perfect example of what can happen when someone
brings their subjective religious ideas into the objective study of nature.
Jonathan Marks (1994) reacted in typical fashion in his review of Forbidden
Archeology: "Generally, attempts to reconcile the natural world to religious
views end up compromising the natural world."
But until modern anthropology conducts a conscious
examination of the effects of its own covert, and arguably religiously
derived, assumptions about time and progress, it should put aside its pretensions
to universal objectivity and not be so quick to accuse others of bending facts
to fit religious dogma. Om Tat Sat.
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