Book Review: Lightning Bird

Watson, Lyall. Lightning Bird.

If you read archaeology reports and anthropology from, on, the late 1800s through the 1960s, one thing that strikes you is how strange some of the theories were. At least, to us they seem strange. One that cropped up again and again was that at some time in the distant past—perhaps before the Great Flood—a more sophisticated culture lived in North America or in places in Africa or in South America, and then disappeared or was wiped out by later primitive peoples. Or had a disaster and “degenerated” into far more primitive cultures. A different variation held that some cultures were incapable of progress. Later, archaeologists found things that were obviously made by people, and found large numbers of them, but could not suss out what they were for or what they did.

Lyall Watson’s book combines archaeology, anthropology, Jungian theory, and biography to tell the story of Adrian Boshier and his experiences in South Africa. Boshier decided he wanted to see the African bush, and ended up changing archaeology and our understanding of a lot about prehistoric South Africa in the process. Watson describes Boshier’s work, and his experiences as Boshier becomes initiated into the rituals and practices of native magic and power among the northern Sotho people, to the point where Boshier serves as a magical practitioner and helps a group rediscover their ancestral rituals and traditions. But Boshier was always pulled different directions, a tension exacerbated by his incurable epilepsy.

As he follows Boshier’s story, Watson explains the archaeology of the 1960s-70s in South Africa and elsewhere, and discusses theories of memory and culture. There’s a lot of Jung below the surface, and if you are familiar with some of Jung’s concepts, you will catch hints, although Watson does not use them directly. He’s more interested in Boshier and Boshier’s experiences, including how he kick-started archaeologists and anthropologists into taking native cultures far more seriously, and looking at stone tools and tool-kits in different ways.

One thing you do not see in the book is Apartheid. Boshier worked outside the system, and while Apartheid was in place, it is not mentioned because it was not germane to Watson’s story.

The book is a fascinating blend of anthropology, archaeology, biography, and adventure tale. Boshier had an affinity for snakes, one of the things that made people wonder if he had spirit power, and the snakes play a role in the story.

Watson takes everything at face value, and does not question or try to interpret away Boshier’s experiences. Watson accepts that there are powers we don’t understand yet, whatever they might be, and that those powers (or belief in them) give certain places and people a lot of clout. If you are familiar with Watson’s other work, you know that he tends to take a very long, deep look into human behavior and history, looking at how our responses and actions often have a deeper reason behind them. I kept wishing that Jordan Peterson and Watson and Boshier could have gotten together for a chat, but it was not to be. Boshier died young, and Watson succumbed to complications of a stroke at age 58.

If you are interested in the beginnings of experimental archaeology (making tools and trying to duplicate how people did things “back then”), in paleoanthropology, in African adventures, or in wondering about how people do things and why, and what spirits animate places and people, this is a book for you. It reads like fiction, but it isn’t.

FTC Notice: This book was loaned to me by a friend. I received no remuneration from the publisher for this review.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Lightning Bird

  1. Sounds really neat.
    The Americas are full of things that the local Columbian cultures couldn’t maintain or reproduce. But they had stories of the before peoples. Cultures rise and fall. Rome has been metaphorically lost many times.

    Examples: A straight, improved road of over 40 miles length in Ohio. Iron smelters in Kentucky. Concrete walls in Peru. The great city near where Cairo, IL is now. The various lost cities. Massive irrigation projects. The various and sundry earthen mounds.

  2. Interesting. His work and outsider view are very similar to Chagnon and the Yanomamo people. It sounds a touch familiar from an anthy class I took uh, [Redacted] years ago, with a nice section on the Bushmen and tool use, and interpreting modern devices in terms of their own knowledge. Chagnon and his ignoble savages were also part of the course. May need to add to my “time available” list.

  3. I grew up loving the “we can’t explain it” stuff– and I know that sometimes it can be explained away.

    …I also know that sometimes, the explain it away doesn’t make any danged sense. A few times, I’ve found that it makes sense IF you don’t accept some prior assumption the explainer was using.

    It’s like a ginormous mystery.

  4. While I take stories of Magic with a grain of salt, I find explanations of “the aliens built those great works not those savages” and the old stand by explanation of “people from Atlantis (or elsewhere) built that” to be complete junk.

    When Americans talked about “long lost outsiders built the Mounds not those savages”, they ignored the Spanish records of Spanish explorers visiting the homes of the Mound-Builders where the Spanish described the builders as Indians not “whites”. 😈

    • The latest theory floating around is that the Meso-American cultures sent people north to trade, or people from the Mississippi River went south, and got the idea for the Cahokia and other mounds from the Maya and Toltec. I’m… skeptical.

      • I’ve been to Toltec Mound State Park in Arkansas. It’s a giant flat-topped pile of dirt. Archeologists have trenched into it and dug around it, trying to find clues as to what it was for. Other than some obviously discarded woven baskets among other trash, bupkis.

        No surrounding settlement, no river or other significant geography. Just a huge pile of dirt in the middle of nowhere.

        • Most of the large mounds in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys were obviously forts and towns. That sort of civil engineering makes sense.

          Artificial mesa in the middle of nowhere, with no water? Sounds like an observatory avoiding light pollution. 😉
          Think about what future researchers will find on the high deserts of South America.

          • It depends on the period. Hopewell stuff is mostly burials or religious/astronomical. Late Woodlands/Fort Ancient is fortifications and settlements.

            Cahokia and Missippians is “big ceremonial mound in the middle of a city and fields”, and we have a decent idea of what was going on from tribes in the South that kept that pattern. It does seem to be related to the Latin American stuff, but not the same. There is an obsession with depicting a single eye, for example.

  5. Not exactly the same, BUT.. one of the most enlightening documentaries I ever watched explained how ancient KNOWN methods could have produced the pyramids (Egypt). Many simple, easily taken for granted things… that are NOT really modern. “How could they make it so straight?” “Sight-lines will do that.” “Polar alignment?” “True north is known by any competent astronomer.” “Exact measure?” “Wheels and counting will do that.” etc. The problem is the “bricks” are BIG and HEAVY. Everything else is fiddly stuff, at best.

    • I especially love the unbridled enthusiasm surrounding the sides of the pyramids being divisible by Pi.
      Because making a long measuring cord that doesn’t stretch is *much* harder than using a wheel. And things measured by revolutions of a wheel will naturally be divisible by Pi.
      I kind of love the far-fetched theories archeologists and anthropologists come up with.
      OTOH, I’ve had a construction project held up for years because of my ancestor’s Prohibition-era still shack. Yes, there are highly unusual amounts of copper in the soil. Yes, it is located away from modern lines of travel. Yes, it was made out of local materials with rough construction, and made to blend in to the surrounding environment.

      • Huh. The last bit of my comment was cut off.
        I was just shaking my head at some of the theories, from “first settlers in the region” to “proof of an indigenous use of copper, and all that implies”. So no big loss, I just like to bring a thought to a conclusion, rather than let it hang.

    • I like the video that shows how the huge blocks were floated into place. And it explains the causeways from the river to some of the pyramids. I rate it ‘plausible’.

  6. There was a LOT of pre-pre-pre-Columbian trade in North America. A LOT. Very little of it was direct trade, as far as we can tell (although it’s possible, as some people really liked to travel, and we have a lot of waterways), but a lot of it was passing X hand to hand, in exchange for Y and Z.

    There was also a lot of exchange of ideas, and a lot of migratory or semi-migratory stuff going on. (As long as you stayed away from trying to steal the fertile river lands for your own crops, or running into other peoples’ woodland crops, prairie crops, bog crops, etc.)

    But the big thing seems to be that there were a lot of religious movements that spread across tribes and broad regions, and that they spread because they brought technical and agricultural advances.

    The Mississippian cultures were comprised (genetically, as far as I have heard) of the same people who had previously been in the same areas, but with new worship practices, new agricultural practices, new plants, new social structures, new clothing styles and hairstyles, and so on.

    • Part of the reason that Mississippian culture hit so big, may have been because the Hopewell tradition (or whatever we’re calling it this month) was so widespread and successful for so long. When the climate changed, suddenly it seemed like the religious part of the tradition had failed. Then corn showed up as part of the Mississippian culture, and got really useful to save people’s butts. So they dropped the whole Serpent Mound and Woodhenge thing, and went to authoritarian corn and slave societies.

      • (Hopewell tradition stuff was happening in the Roman Warm Period. And they’re the guys who did all the really cool mounds. Mississippians were the Cahokia types.)

  7. Anyhoo, the mounds all seem to have been built by bucket brigade methods, except they were carrying dirt in baskets, bags, or buckets. Some of the large mounds have large pits nearby, in inconspicuous places. They didn’t waste topsoil inside the mounds. And so on.

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