The Origins of Culture


Recently, whether out in the field or at home in my cozy cabin, I have had one major question echoing in my brain. What is the oldest culture on planet Earth?

Is it Mesopotamia, the land of rivers and the “cradle of civilization,” or the ancient Mayans, leaving behind their iconic pyramids? Could it be the Taoists, as we have seen many of their symbols used by other early cultures including the Mayans? Or does this title belong to mythical Atlantis, with its secrets locked beneath the waves?

Scholars have made arguments for each of these and many other civilizations, but we still have no definitive answer. I believe that our egocentrism as a species has kept us from seeing the obvious answer – the first “culture” is the Earth itself. Our planet has been the backdrop and the primary force influencing the thoughts, social constructs, and survival systems from the first human ever born to the children coming into the world as you read this now.

The mountains inspired this initial thought. Standing on top of the continental divide, I am struck by these prolific mountains of North America. Their presence is responsible for all the ecosystems surrounding them – arid plains, lush forests, vast tundra. These mountains, although relatively young from a geological perspective have seen more people live and die, more cultures rise and fall and impacted more ideologies and strategies for survival than any culture alive today.

The Rocky Mountains dictate our weather and therefore political policies on the most important resource of all, water. They inspire mythology and science based on geological clues left behind for the observant eye. Artists and poets paint pictures of toothed rock, piercing the heavens letting the celestial blood drip from the sky giving us our picturesque sunsets. The notion of perpetuating ideas, the transaction of knowledge through stories and the creation of art are all grounds for a sound culture. It just so happens to not be of human creation in this case, but instead human interpretation.

If you’ve ever walked through the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, you know the heavy quiet when sound is dampened by the immense amount of life exuding from the moisture-laden soil bellow. Some have ventured to the canopy tops to become a part of the forest high rise. Some cultures even have words just for the experience of walking through a forest. The Japanese call this Shinrin-yoku, translated as “forest bath.” These trees have been here longer than our own country has been in existence, albeit a very young nation.

We have now found that there are civilizations within these great giants. Mycorrihzal fungi in the trees’ root systems allow roots to reach nutrients stored in much smaller and compact soils while also connecting the trees to one another, allowing them to communicate, share resources, nurture their young, heal their sick and communicate danger. These traits, considered specific to humans and animals, are clearly more universal as we delve into the vast labyrinth of knowledge and wonder of our planet.

We don’t know enough yet to understand whether our planet has any kind of consciousness or intent behind what it does and how it reacts. But we can clearly see that Earth is our influence and benevolent dictator behind our human culture.

I have a word I use for this influence the Earth exerts on human civilization – Eco-Emanation. If “culture” describes human habits, beliefs, and mythologies, then Eco-Emanation describes the creative force or canvas upon which all cultures are conceived. After all, don’t we owe everything to the ever-changing and evolving land beneath our feet, even our most sacred and valued possessions, our thoughts themselves?