The universe (like all Gaul) is divided into three parts–matter, space and time. Chemistry deals with matter; geometry calculates space; but time appears to be neglected. We are so accustomed to our watches and calendars that we take for granted all the mechanism behind them. Only our poets and lovers look to the sky for practical inspiration; and not one science in all the heterogeneous group is devoted simply to the study of time.
Strictly speaking, of course, chronology should take the matter in hand, but chronology has belied its name, and gone off at a tangent of names and dates–very important to be sure–but hardly comparable with the basis of time itself. Philosophy, in a theoretical fashion, has done its duty well; but the chief practical progress in the study of time has been left to the astronomers.
Yet, in spite of this apparent neglect, time was the first of the sciences and the most important. We have divorced ourselves from its foundations now. Because it was the first, it is now the best; its mechanisms are the most perfect; and we are the least conscious of them. Only in our leisure moments do we find occasion to lie on our backs and look up at the heavens in aesthetic contemplation.
We forget that there was a time when “watching the skies” constituted the most important and the most practical of man’s activities. The contrast is so complete today that we speak of “star-gazing” as of a child’s pastime, doubtless charming, but hardly a part of the business world. We are not even vaguely aware of the vast effort which mankind made, before astronomers could catch time from the stars and reflect it back by means of calendars and watches into the smooth course of our daily lives.
We cannot tell when man first began to observe the heavens. No very advanced powers of observation are required to distinguish night from day. Cabbages and kings alike recognize the difference. In the world of flowers, morning glories and four o’clocks are only two precise examples out of thousands. In the animal world a sense of time persists by instinct. We were personally acquainted with some London pigeons who, habitually fed at one o’clock, refused to eat before their accustomed hour. If food were put out for them at a quarter to one, they would gather on the balcony and with their heads cocked a little to one side, regard the phenomenon. At three minutes to one they might hop down. At one o’clock they began to eat.
Nor is a brilliant mind necessary to distinguish the seasons. Instinct and habit, the desire to avoid cold and seek warmth, have led the fleeter forms of life into migration, and taught the more sluggish how to sleep all winter in warm hiding places. In our mountain valleys we may know the approach of winter by the bugle call of the elk, as they come down from their summer pasturage above timber line. The aspen leaves may show no sign of gold; the gentian may still be in bloom; but if the elks are calling we know that winter is at hand.
With these animal and vegetable examples before our eyes, we may safely say that some thirty thousand to a hundred thousand years ago, when our remote ancestors picked up their forefeet, they were already aware of the changes on the earth. Before they adapted fire for their own purposes, they had begun to look at the Sun and Moon.
We know very little of these early men. Whatever records they may have kept are lost. We can gather some slight knowledge from their skulls, or from the most simple and durable of their artifacts. Arrowheads point to clues. Fireplaces mark the spot of their dwellings. In rare occasions there are cave paintings of great value. Tradition supported by evidence tells us that their lives were simple. They obtained food by hunting and gathering. They knew a certain amount by instinct.
As a remote antecedent to science, instinct served man very well, but it has one great drawback; it cannot be buried and dug up again at will. If it is not kept in constant service from one generation to the next, it will atrophy. Man’s mind differentiates him from all other animals; and to some extent he has let his mind spoil him. As soon as he attained the first elements of comfort he began to lose his animal training. In order to employ what he had gained, he found that he must make readjustments for what he had lost. He developed the ability to predict. With his own fire, in his own snug cave, he had no need to go southward for the winter; therefore he became less wary as winter approached. Yet the fire in the cave would be useless if he had not laid in supplies.
At the beginning of winter there would be no more vegetable food growing in the bushes, and no more animal food roaming loose in the forest. He could tell when autumn was at hand by the fall of the leaves or the departure of the birds; but that observation was without value unless he could predict when the change would occur. Neither his fire, nor the hunting implements of which he was so proud, could help him after the berries had fallen, and the birds had flown. “Ah yes,” he might have said on a chill morning, “how interesting! This is winter! I remember this same thing happened a while ago. We shall have cold weather now.”
Very interesting indeed; but it was a trifle late for preparations at that point, when there was nothing left to prepare. He had to know before the change came. When the first hunter tried to predict that for the first time, the study of astronomy had begun.
That picture is oversimplified, of course. We don’t know where, nor in how many places on the earth, civilization arose. We don’t know through how many winters man nearly starved before he understood the elements of adjusting himself. Fewer changes occurred in ten thousand years then, than in ten years now. “A thousand ages in thy sight” is a saying as applicable to primitive man, as to the Deity.
We do know, however, that a very long time after the first hunter observed the Sun, his descendants began to make further provision: some by domesticating wild animals, others by planting crops. The herdsman, then, was forced to watch the skies for the changing seasons, as in his nomadic life, he tried to follow the variations of the pasture lands. Even more carefully, the tiller of the soil lifted his eye from the ground to regard the Sun. He could not afford to plant and reap according to his own whim.
The only calendar in his possession was written boldly across the sky; but until he learned to read the signs, it was as useless to him as a picture puzzle without a key. Those who lived near a great river arranged their lives to suit its convenience. The river was a god, but there was another god in the sky; and the two did not seem entirely unrelated. Perhaps, if the sun god were well served, he would tell them when the river god was about to overflow.