The plot of Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi classic, The Sirens of Titan, revolves around efforts by an alien civilization on the planet Tralfamadore to deliver a secret message to another alien race on the other and of the universe. The Trafamadorean spacecraft breaks down en route and is stranded on Saturn’s moon, Titan. As Vonnegut’s tangled tale unfolds, it is revealed that all human history has been manipulated from the beginning in a vast effort to supply the Trafamadorean spacecraft with the spare part needed to resume its journey across the universe. And just what is the secret message that has required such elaborate machinations? It is a single dot that in the Trafamadorean language means “greetings.”

I was reminded of Vonnegut’s epic shaggy dog story when I first encountered references to prehistoric handprints found on cave walls all over the world. These may have been among the first information intentionally recorded by human beings tens of thousands of years before the earliest forms of writing. There is much scholarly debate over what these mostly stenciled handprints were meant to convey, including speculation that they might be a primitive form of sign language. If anything, I would suggest the meaning has changed little from then to now when we raise an open palm with fingers spread. Our Paleolithic ancestors might simply be saying, “Greetings.”

Anatomically modern humans have been around for some 300,000 years, and for most of that time they came and went without leaving a trace. “Anatomically modern” means, among other things, that our ancestors came equipped with enlarged brains capable of such higher cognitive functions as symbolic speech, abstract reasoning, and foresight. For all we know, they might have counted among their number a DaVinci, a Socrates or an Einstein, but they had no way of leaving their mark upon the world. Generation succeeded generation, each leading lives more or less exactly as the same as their ancestors. Any innovations that could not be passed along by word of mouth died with them.

I doubt the humans who first placed imprints of their own hands on a cave wall had the least notion that archeologists would be debating their meaning 40,000 years later. These early artists may have been moved by nothing more than an impulse to leave some mark on the world, like a child placing a handprint in wet cement. In doing so, however, they had not only sent a message to everyone in the cave, but they had also inadvertently learned to speak across the ages.

When my wife was young, she worked briefly at Yale’s Babylonian Collection, which housed documents and artifacts from Near Eastern civilizations dating back more than 5,000 years. The collection, based on a donation of cuneiform tablets from the financier J.P. Morgan, is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Much of the collection consists of business records inscribed on clay, along with materials touching on every aspect of daily life in the ancient world. There is also literature and poetry in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hittite, as well as scientific treatises — the latter including a clay tablet depicting the Pythagorean theorem more than a thousand years before Pythagoras.

The point is not just that some unknown Babylonian mathematician got a thousand-year jump on Pythagoras. The point is that human beings, by means of writing, were now able to leave their mark upon the world and thereby to transmit their thoughts and ideas through time. The result is that important Babylonian discoveries in law, mathematics and astronomy did not depend on oral transmission but could be passed down in written form and built upon by later civilizations.

Socrates, the fifth-century BCE philosopher, fretted that writing was a poor method of retaining information because it eroded memory. He was probably right. But here’s the rub: Socrates, like Jesus of Nazareth, left behind no writings of his own. Had these two not had followers who dutifully wrote down everything they said, their words would have been lost to history. As it was, did they have the least idea that they would be heard by anyone who was not within immediate earshot when they spoke?

More than 50 years ago, NASA launched twin space probes a year apart, each bearing a message for the stars. Pioneer 10 and 11 performed a flyby of Jupiter and explored the outer solar system before exiting the solar system altogether. Astronomer Carl Sagan persuaded NASA to attach a small gold-anodized aluminum plaque to each spacecraft with a message for any alien civilization that might encounter it. The message had to be understood by an alien intelligence with no knowledge of human culture, so Sagan and his colleagues used drawings, including a diagram of the earth’s location in the solar system, a schematic of the sun’s location in the galaxy and figures of a man and a woman standing in front of a profile of the Pioneer spacecraft. In a welcoming gesture that any Trafamadorean might appreciate, the man’s hand was raised with palm open, as if to say, “Greetings.”

© Copyright 2004-2023 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved