Levkas Man, written by British author/adventurer Hammond Innes in 1971, is provocative because Innes infused the story with a compelling new theory on the origin of mankind. Finishing the book I spent three days engrossed in anthropological research (if wandering between Wikipedia sites and YouTube documentaries is what you call research). As an embittered young seaman pursues his father, a brilliant and obsessed paleontologist, through the Greek isles, we learn from both the theory that man is inherently violent. The son is running away from a dockside incident that left a man dead. He wrestles with his impulse to violence. Dr. Van de Voort, his infamous father, is in pursuit of the final piece of fossilized bone that will confirm his theory that Homo sapien sapien (modern humans) descended from the ‘wrong’ branch of Homo erectus, the ones that are born to kill.
He asserts that, “Man is a killer and he carries the seed of his own destruction in him.” On the curved walls and vaulted ceiling of the 40,000 year Cro-Magnon era cave dwelling he discovered on the remote Greek island of Levkas vivid paintings celebrate man’s mastery of the kill – fire-driven herds being running off cliffs, blood streaming from the sides of lanced animals, ecstatic expressions on the warriors faces.
Scientific study of human origin is relatively new. Darwin published ‘The Origin of Species’ in 1859. The worldwide archeological digs of the 20th Century (parallel with the science of dating the findings, human & animal skeletons, artifacts, weapons, tools and structures) have provided pieces of the puzzle. But, from ape-man (‘Java Man’, the missing link) to Homo Hablis (stone tools) to Homo Ergaster (control of fire) to Cro-Magnon (the ‘Great Leap Forward’ to modern man) three key elements mark our progress toward becoming the dominant species: 1) our big brains, 2) our ability to make weapons, 3) our capacity for organizing mass killing. Louis Leakey (the scientist that inspired Innes’ Dr. Van de Voort character in Levkas Man) described the Olduvai Gorge in the The Great Rift Valley of Tanzania Africa (the cradle of humanity) where he found thousands of human and animals bones ranging from 20,000 to 1.5 million ago – as: ‘a great slaughterhouse’. Early human communities of fifteen to twenty individuals, competing for resources, killed their competitors, defending their territory – and so began mankind’s legacy of war. 21st Century communities of millions still complete, still kill.
Confronted with what seems to be unstoppable human violence in today’s world the question is: Can we evolve past our killing instincts?
My answer: we can if we try. We have been trying for a long time.
Chinese philosopher Mozi (4th Century BC) preached ‘universal love’ and started the Mohism school of philosophy that lasted for centuries. The Minoan culture (3650-1400 BC) with its matriarchal religion honoring their ‘Mother Goddess’ and their bull-leaping events honoring, not killing, bulls seem to be relatively free of war for nearly 2,000 years. India’s Mahavira created the Jain religion, 5th Century BC, preaching that to achieve nirvana one must abstain from violence. With its mighty armies the Rome Empire also popularized Ovid, Propertius and Seneca the Younger, all critical of warfare. The Cathars of Italy (12th-14th Century AD) believed in non-violence, following what they called the ‘good God’ of the New Testament rather than the ‘bad God’ of the Old Testament (Pope Innocent III mounted a crusade to wipe them out). Christian Reformation gave birth to Quakers, Amish, Mennonites and many more sects pledged to non-violence. Modern leaders of non-violent protest, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, German’s Petra Kelly, Césare Chavez, Leymah Gbowee (‘Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace’) and many lesser-known people committed their lives to peace. So, yes, we are trying.
Many, including me, are perhaps too quiet about our commitment to pacifism. We caught in a time when we do not want to dishonor those who chose to serve our country through military service but are hard-pressed to demonstrate a peace-loving alternative. John F. Kennedy summed it up: “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”
Somewhere in our ancestral genetic code is a desire for peace.
P.S. Find less elaborate book reviews under the heading ‘What Rhody’s Reading.’