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Before the First Pyramids

pyramid and clay tablet

The mysterious era preceding the ancient pyramids

(4th edition - February 2008) by A.O. Kime
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The centuries immediately preceding the building of the ancient pyramids in Egypt and China is a time of great curiosity… 10,000 BC until 5,000 BC. It was a time when the human race was undergoing its most radical transformation since the beginning. People began to leave behind isolationism, their world of small independent clans and tribes, and headed down a path towards a world of networking associations… later to be known as ‘kingdoms’ and ‘countries’ and this transformation led to the building of massive structures never before seen. It was the beginnings of civilization.

Claims to a territory would have occurred much earlier however… perhaps tens of thousands of years earlier. Just as bears or mountain lions inherently believe they have the exclusive right to an expanse of territory, so did man have this inherent belief. Except that long ago man wasn’t preparing to build monumental structures.

While it would be interesting to know when man first began to defend an expanse of territory which he considered his, nameless expanses, the boundaries of which he only visualized, this could have occurred even 200,000-300,000 years ago... but that time period is actually less a mystery. The most profound and mystifying time period were those centuries immediately preceding man’s building aspirations. The mighty questions are… what in the world caused man to want to build? And… how was it possible his first projects were such engineering marvels? Or were the stone pyramids really his first?

While there are older surviving structures, the oldest (8,000 BC) being the stone tower in Jericho (external website), they weren't nearly as massive as the later pyramids. Yet, this 25 foot high tower deserves mention since it demonstrates, as Israeli archaeologist Amihai Mazar puts it, "the existence of social organization and central authority which could recruit, for the first time in human history, the necessary means and manpower for such building operations." (quote from his book Archaeology of the Land of the Bible)

The ancient pyramids of Egypt, China, Mexico and... Greece?

Since the Egyptians were the first to devise a calendar in 4,236 BC enabling them to date events, we know the oldest Egyptian pyramid was built during the reign of Netjenkhet Djoser, the 2nd King of Egypt's 3rd Dynasty (2687-2668 BC). However, some believe the oldest pyramids exist in China... alleging the oldest of the approximately 100 pyramids were built around 4,500-5,000 BC. Then there are the pyramids in Mexico… but its pyramid-building era didn’t debut until thousands of years later; construction on the largest pyramid in Mexico (Teotihuacán) didn’t begin until about 200 AD.

There are also 16 small stone pyramids in Greece and mentionable because they were built about a century before the first Egyptian pyramid. While much smaller, about the size of a house, archaeologists have determined the Hellenikon pyramid in Greece predates the Djoser pyramid by about 100 years. Perhaps the Egyptians got the idea of pyramid-building from the Greeks? There are also claims of another, perhaps older, Greek pyramid... a so-called ‘sculptured pyramid’ atop Taygetus mountain (external website).

It is believed these small Greek pyramids served either as memorials or observation-communication towers but only a few have been studied. Even though they are much smaller, the Greek pyramids seemed to have served a practical purpose whereas the larger Egyptian and Chinese pyramids didn’t. The building of a monstrous structure for burial purposes doesn't seem a practical undertaking. Those in Mexico, on the other hand, were multipurpose.

Aside from having the same architectural design (pyramidal), there exists another similarity between the pyramids in Egypt, Mexico and China… their monumental size. In Egypt the Great Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet high, Mexico's Teotihuacán is 187 feet and most of those in China are about 300 feet high. China’s largest is the 1,000' Great White Pyramid (external website) which is the tomb of Empress Wu of the Tang Dynasty except it isn't a 'real' pyramid, instead it was once a small mountain re-shaped into a pyramid (sculptured pyramid). It is not especially old however, constructed around 700 AD.

Since hugeness was obviously important in all three regions, perhaps there was some religious significance. If so, then it was curiously universal. While a pyramid is the sturdiest of all structures, a monstrosity goes beyond reason... but in defying logic so boldly it must have been a powerful reason. Of course, incorporating religious concepts into architecture invariably the results appear illogical.

The mysterious ancient desire to build pyramids

While the Egyptians and Chinese were apparently the first builders some 5-7,000 years ago, most intriguing is what might have caused mankind to become builders, practically overnight it seems considering how long humans have been around. What was the impetus? Was it the result of metaphysical enlightenment? Religion? Was there a change in man’s logical disposition or merely inevitable he would build something aesthetically grand? Of course, we might also consider the necessary skills and wherewithal finally joined forces.

Since it is apparent those in Egypt and Mexico required more engineering skills than those in China, in trying to compare their numbers, size and age is like comparing apples to oranges. And, until archaeologists can establish the age of these Chinese pyramids, their chronological position remains in question anyway. They may not be older than those in Egypt... and those in China are merely earthen mounds. While huge earthen mounds, nonetheless they are comparatively ‘low-tech’ accomplishments.

However, it doesn't matter their age or type of construction in trying to determine what caused men to build. For this purpose, we can talk about all these monstrous structures in the same breath.

Wooden pyramids?

In trying to make sense of it, we should first try to determine what preceded this time period. It should shed clues as to how man's building aspirations unfolded. Of course, if earlier grand structures were built they obviously didn’t survive the ages. While there is no evidence of large structures having been built anywhere prior to 7,000 years ago... that doesn’t mean none were built. It may simply mean none were built with durable substances such as stone (Egypt-Mexico) or veneered with clay (China). The most ancient structures undoubtedly would have been wooden… but long since decomposed or used as firewood. It is only logical to assume man used wood to attempt his first grand structure. He must have.

Perhaps wooden frame multi-family dwellings or large community centers were built. Of course, that's not to imply they looked like those of today. While nothing as colossus as the pyramids would have been attempted it seems, maybe something very large was.

In the Egyptian case, a large wooden structure, for whatever purpose it was designed for, would have developed the necessary skills for something bigger, more complex. Woodworking skills would be necessary to construct the scaffolding for something more grandiose… like pyramids. Architectural designs and construction capabilities would need to be tested. After all, one wouldn’t attempt something grand without knowing beforehand they could do it. To attempt something so grand, and fail, would be highly embarrassing to all evolved.

Idealism versus realism in ancient times

We might also wonder why the Europeans didn't build something grand during this time. It seems if they had wanted to, they could have. Perhaps the most likely reason they didn’t was because of their logical disposition... perhaps they were more practical-minded. The absence of these structures indicates they were realists. They didn't built monumental structures like the pyramids simply because they didn't deem them practical. In the case of the ancient Egyptians, Mexicans and Chinese, it seems they built pyramids for metaphysical (spiritual) purposes which rarely has anything to do with being practical. However, impractical doesn't always mean illogical. Beliefs about the spirit world simply produces another reality... another way to look at things.

While an ancient illogical or impractical structure would surely produce a mystery, any questions concerning the rational of the builders, or the intended purposes of the structure, are overshadowed by our question of 'impetus'... what prompted them to begin building. Perhaps it shouldn't matter the spiritual-minded would surely see salvation and immortality as practical pursuits. Conversely, perhaps it shouldn't matter those who aren't spiritually-minded consider pyramids impractical. After all, in one sense they are practical, in another sense they aren't... perhaps that's the extent of the mystery. Of course, lurking in the shadows is the dimension of religious differences... Christians certainly wouldn't view pyramids as practical either. Only steeples make sense (they'd think).

While the ancient Egyptians were apparently driven by powerful spiritual beliefs which, as it turned out, gave Egypt an enviable legacy, but in considering the amount of manpower expended, practical-mindedness would say the Egyptians could have built the Suez Canal instead. At any rate, it seems to indicate idealism in Egypt, Mexico and China was once more prevalent than realism.

Even though the Chinese may have been equally motivated, their pyramids don't seem as mysterious as the Egyptian pyramids or those in Mexico. The type of construction is probably the reason… earthen mounds don’t conjure up as much curiosity. It's perhaps the reason the Chinese pyramids were never really famous… largely unknown to the outside world until the 1940s. The curious Egyptian pyramids, on the other hand, have been famous for millennia. Still, whatever preceded them must have been practical. After all, before one can go forward culturally they must be realistic.

Practical structures versus pyramids and image

So, what type of grand structures would be viewed as practical in ancient times? Practical structures must fill a need so we should try to determine what these needs might have been. Population densities would seem the biggest reason a need would develop… and perhaps the only fully practical reason. A skyscraper in Manhattan would be fully practical… a dam or football stadium. There could also be ‘purposeful’ reasons for monstrosities while at the same time not being practical. In other words, the intended purpose might be to portray a positive image. For example, the very existence of an aesthetically grand structure implies only a mighty empire would attempt it. So, psychologically, that particular desired image is created in the mind of the beholder.

Overbuilt structures go beyond serving a practical purpose as well... the unnecessary appendages are for image purposes. The appendages of aesthetically-pleasing structures which serve no practical function also creates the impression the builder is wealthy enough to have already met the social needs of society. Of course, in everyone's mind, wealth relates to power.

But, was man concerned about ‘image’ that long ago? Aside from the ancient pyramids serving as a metaphysical esophagus, is it possible they were also built to reflect an image? If so, what kind of image? To intimidate perhaps? Of all the reactions an image is capable of invoking, intimidation can’t be ruled out in the case of the pyramids. After all, intimidation had long been utilized by societies to frighten enemies and potential enemies. The more barbaric forms of intimidation were the acts of displaying scalps and severed heads and leaving corpses hanging for days in plain view. During the Middle Ages in Europe, impaled bodies were left on their death stakes for all to see.

Perhaps then, whether displaying a string of scalps or a sculptured colossus... it's all the same.

Aside from being functional, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Aswan Dam also exhibit a positive image. Aside from invoking one’s appreciation for architectural genius and building skills, such structures would, at the same time, be intimidating. They would be intimidating to enemies, potential enemies and would even intimidate their own countrymen… while at the same time, curiously, making citizens proud to be associated with the accomplishment.

Since the ancient Europeans didn't build pyramids, except for the small ones in Greece, then perhaps they didn't know yet large structures can be intimidating... or that the more illogical they are, the more intimidating they become. After all, they were still practicing barbaric forms of intimidation. That means that if grand structures (wooden) were built in Europe, they would have served a practical purposes and had no appendages. In either case, it indicates realism was more prevalent in Europe than idealism... that is, until the Dark Ages.

Ancient European rednecks

If the Europeans didn't build wooden social-events structures early-on, then perhaps they were still content sitting on rocks, stumps and logs to hear speeches, listen to music. To them, maybe it was thought illogical to build sitting places when such sitting places already existed. Perhaps Europeans had not yet seen any value in aesthetics. Maybe in the beginning they were like today’s rednecks, efficient, practical, no-nonsense kind of guys content strutting their heathen qualities. We know of course during classical times all that changed… Europeans became the masters of art and architectural design.

For Egypt, perhaps their barren plains played a role as well… whereby more noticeable a pyramid would be. Besides serving as a sarcophagus for kings, perhaps they were also purposed to give their otherwise featureless landscape some character. At least it would be a side benefit.

In any case, whether rational people or not, large wooden structures absolutely had to exist before the era of the stone pyramids, and if not elsewhere, then surely in Egypt. Such wooden Egyptian structures were likely built close to the forests once existing in North Africa 7,000 to 8,000 years ago which stretched from Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. The buried portion of the upright beams might still exist. These beams would have been huge and the encroaching dry desert sand, which quickly consumed the entire region, might have preserved them. It's doubtful the remains of anything bigger than a hay barn will be found in Europe however… they were practical people.

The impetus to build

So, what was the impetus which caused men to become builders? Well, perhaps this might explain it. While it would have taken man several millennia to develop the wherewithal beginning with construction tools to serve his various needs (traps, shelters), it could be compared to the beginnings of the industrial revolution which began in the 19th century. In other words, the necessary wherewithal just finally came together. From hundreds of professions, whether it was from the techniques developed from shoemaking (leather straps), or from the developments in door-making (hinges), these innovations were continually borrowed and applied in other ways.

Just as developments made possible the industrial revolution, developments made possible the 'building revolution' some 7,000-10,000 years ago. Once the wherewithal was in place, the unbridled nature of imagination, ingenuity and creativity took over. From this, one could say 'human nature' was the impetus. The 'spark' came from the first idea. While this may seem a letdown, that there wasn't anything 'magical' which caused man to begin building, but in a sense it was magical. After all, this ethereal idea, a transcendental sensation of no substance, is what caused it all to happen.

Of course, following the very first structures would be one-upmanship. After all, it's human to try outdoing. Further, this one-upmanship would manifest itself in very conceivable way leading to a variety of forms which were often utilized for religious purposes. It wasn't long before man discovered structures can also express ideals and beliefs, while, at the same time, intimidate. It seems evident, building something became in vogue... 'fashionable'. So, whether pyramids, a steamship or jet fighter, they all owe their existence to the idea of a chicken coop.

A.O. Kime

Last modified: 03/09/14