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The Oldest Idea in the World?

The association of directions with colors may be the oldest known set of philosophical ideas in the world, transmitted from ancient Asia to the Americas over 10,000 years ago.

Obvious Concepts

Some concepts come naturally to humans. In several ancient societies, the moon relates to a goddess, and logically so, for menstruation and lunar cycles follow similar rhythms. A link between rabbits and the moon may seem a bit more tenuous despite its frequent appearance in Asian folklore and among the Maya of centuries ago.

Moon goddess holding her rabbit, Classic Maya incised vessel, c. AD 700 (American Museum of Natural History, 30.3/1048, drawing by Simon Martin).

But this also makes sense. What better allusion to fertility and prolific birth than a bunny?

An image from a Maya vase of about AD 700, made somewhere in the southern Yucatan peninsula, shows a Moon Goddess, connected in some way to a deity of maize. While she cradles this creature, a Maya moon glyph, a crescent, holds them both.

An amorous tinge comes into play when they appear as a couple on equal footing.

Then there is the sun. Dominating the sky, it offers daylight but also a model of how people can understand central control. According to Confucius, “Heaven does not have two suns; the people do not have two kings.” One ruler is enough.

Examples include the “Sun King,” Louis XIV of France, a figure of egocentric splendor if there ever was one, and, among the ancient Maya, kings called k’inich, a solar title applied to important rulers. Unlike humans, who must die, the sun comes tomorrow and the day after, a compelling model for mortal rulers who crave order, permanence, and smooth succession. That the analogy is grand and its referent overwhelming give an added boost to royal vanity.

Moon goddess and romantic partner, ceramic figurine, possibly Jaina Island, Mexico, c. AD 700 (Princeton Art Museum 2016-1123).

These obvious concepts did not need to be transmitted over wide oceans to arise in multiple places. It is when an idea, a mental representation, an account, even a goad to human action, becomes complex that independent invention seems less likely.

Directions and Colors

This is the case for what scholars call “color-directional symbolism,” found throughout Asia and in parts of North America and into the civilizations of Mesoamerica, a region of connected cultural traits embracing much of modern-day Mexico, northern Central America, and, some would argue, into the Southwest of the United States.

Four directions, as seen from a central pivot, associate with specified colors, sacred mountains, wondrous birds or beasts, and requirements for sacred movement or processions. The symbolism does not just organize the cosmos but dictates the ritual devotions that correspond to that order.

The anthropologist Warren DeBoer usefully summarized the evidence from North America and Mesoamerica, showing that there are few to no attestations of these systems in the far northwest, towards Alaska and the Bering Strait. Some appear to be organized in a clockwise pattern, others counter-clockwise.

As among the Maya, red is commonly associated with east, white with north, black with west, yellow with south, and green/blue with center.

An intelligible logic guides some of this: red for sunrise, black for the setting sun, green/blue for growth in domesticated fields or, as among the Maya, a forest giant, the ceiba tree (yaxte’), to support the heavens. (In the jungle, the ceiba reaches high and then spreads out near the canopy.)

Research on images and proto-writing from the earliest civilization in Mesoamerica (the Olmec) and with peoples in contact with them, confirm that some of these patterns, including directional mountains, go back far into the first-millennium BC. By the heyday of the Classic Maya, who lived at about the time of the later Romans to Charlemagne and later, even more is clear.

Glyphic texts record the placement (waljiiy) of sacred effigies in sequence, organized by direction and color. Royal tombs at the heavily looted city of Río Azul, Guatemala, display sacred mountains in the four walls of a crypt: in a sense, the prepared, kingly body lies at the center of all things.

North Wall, Tomb 25, Río Azul, Guatemala, c. AD 500 (George F. Mobley, courtesy of George Stuart, facilitated by David Stuart).

A few centuries later, prior to the Spanish Conquest, a Maya scribe condensed space and time into a diagram in the so-called Codex Madrid (named after its current location). It lays out the march of days, signaled by footprints, and various sacrifices and offering suitable for each direction. Cosmic order demanded that certain duties take place to sustain the whole.

Similar arrangements exist throughout Asia. These range from the Obangsaek system of color-directions and divine animals (sashindo) in Korea to the pigment on certain Tibetan mandala, dense depictions of cosmic order. In their making and contemplation they open a means to find enlightenment.

In Korea, hints of such systems come in the first millennium AD, in China from the latter half of the first millennium BC. The earliest literate people in China, the Shang, referred to directions and ritual movements in their Oracle Bone texts, but a full-blown ordering appears to be absent. By the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), however, it surely was in place: the Son of Heaven (the Emperor) held court according to rooms and circuits organized by directions, colors, and elements.

Ancient Transmission

There are two ways to explain the dispersion of this complex of ideas that, to be sure, often varied in detail. It could have been a relatively late, imperial, specifically Chinese codification of knowledge—a product of state control over education?—that spread along the Silk Road linking China and points west. Or it could have come from a far deeper past, deriving, perhaps, from shamanistic concepts rooted in central and northern Asia.

This is where the Americas loom large. Their color-directional symbolism could be entirely distinct in origin. Or, as seems more likely, they drew on similar ideas that had passed, at some point, to or from Siberia across the Bering Strait.

Directional symbolism in the Madrid Codex (Inventory 70300, Museo de América, Madrid, Spain, chromolithograph from 1892)

There could have been alternative routes, some believe: a stray boat blown across the ocean, rather like the debris arriving on shores in North America after the devastating Japanese tsunami of March 2011. Or, as proposed by Jon Erlandson and colleagues, canoes might skirt ice-locked land and be paddled along rich kelp beds in search of marine resources, possibly as early as 18,000 years ago. (Direct routes across the Pacific are disfavored by currents and the boat technology of the time. Nonetheless, far to the south, in Brazil, are early human remains with intriguing genetic markers pointing to an Australasian origin.) Evidence from DNA suggests this group, a “first-wave,” went on to populate much of the Americas, if supplemented by other “waves” heading south.

The physical gap is what matters here. As a system, color-directional orientations cluster far to the south. If there is a connection, it took place with high probability in remote prehistory, long before Maya glyphs, the Silk Road or the Han Empire. There are competing examples of great antiquity from Australia, which, as oral accounts, may report events of over 7,000 years ago, provided one accepts the reliability of that tradition.

But color-directions and all that they imply may be the oldest, demonstrable complex of philosophical ideas in the world, carried by people over 10,000 years ago across a land of cold ice, or perhaps girt by kelp, to alight in the minds and hearts of Native America. Nestled there, in a cultural algorithm with supple variations, humans found order in the world and a secure place within the cosmos.

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