I recently walked along the Dolores River canyon trail near the "town" of Bedrock (sorry, didn't spot Fred or Barney) and along this trail one has the nice experience of seeing both ancient petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks. On the way back we were treated to a brief thundershower (hey, it's Colorado!) with much noisy thunder and lightning.
One could easily imagine yourself 5,000 or 10,000 years ago when these figures of deer, snakes, and bear claws were pecked into the rocks by the canyon dwellers, and also put yourself into the moccasins of the primitive people who lived in this impressive but not so fertile place. When the flash of lightning lit up the heavens and the boom of thunder echoed off the canyon walls, what thoughts ran through their minds? Did they try to explain it? How did they explain it?
I remember my Mom telling me that thunder meant that "the gods were bowling," the kind of humor that we can indulge in today now that science knows the correct answer. But imagine how powerful and frightening the flashes and thunders must have been to the canyon dwellers thousands of years ago? With no scientific knowledge and only the natural world of humans and wild animals to draw ideas from, coupled with the powerful human need to "explain" things, how did they explain it?
We'll never know the stories they told around their campfires and lodges, but fortunately scholars during the 19th century recorded many of the Native American myths about their world and how it worked. One of those myths, shared by many Indian tribes, was that of the Thunderbird. The beating of this enormous creature's wings caused the wind and thunder.
Such a creative myth, which conjures up an elaborate image of a giant bird, along with other religious symbols, could not be possible before an elaborate spoken language had evolved. Words are abstractions, and indeed are thought by scholars to be the first abstractions that the minds our ancestors, 100,000 years ago or more, developed. Once the abstraction of words was invented, could the invention of an ever greater abstraction, that of invisible spirits and gods, be far behind?
To be continued...