Philosophy, literature, mythology, psychology, climate, history.

Germany and the Extent of Human History

with 3 comments

For the last week I’ve been traveling up west Germany to Berlin, where I will be studying German at the Carl Duisberg Center for the next two months.

After arriving in Frankfurt I immediately jumped on a train to nearby Heidelberg, home of the oldest university in the country. It’s a beautiful little town and a great place to crash-land. It is near Frankfurt, the primary international port of entry, and has a developed service industry. It is easy to acclimatize in a town where most people are glad to see foreigners.

Heidelberg Altstadt

Heidelberg Altstadt

One of the highlights of my visit to Heidelberg was the intriguing Apothecary Museum, located inside its famous and picturesque castle. In this seventeenth century painting we can see Christ depicted as a pharmacist:

Christ the Pharmacist

Not far from Heidelberg, the remains of Homo heidelbergensis were discovered, a possible ancestor to both neanderthal and modern humans who lived around 600,000 years ago.

Continuing north I arrived in Köln (Cologne). The name derives from the Latin Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis, bestowed on the city by the Roman Emperor Claudius in 50 AD. The centerpiece of the cityscape, immediately adjacent to the central train station, is the indescribably huge cathedral. The western bell tower is around 40 stories high.

Cologne Cathedral

The cathedral was built above the Roman city walls that lie beneath its grounds.

Roman Walls

After the Roman Empire became embroiled in conflict with the Goths, pre-Germanic Frankish tribes moved into the region. A fourth century grave containing a Frankish noblewoman buried in finery was discovered on the cathedral grounds during construction in 1959. The grave of a young boy was found nearby – he was buried around 530 CE with adult armor and weapons, which were probably his inheritance.

The cathedral itself was begun in 1247 on the site of an old Carolingian church, but it was not completed for some seven hundred years when the Prussian Kaisers pumped massive amounts of cash into the project. It houses artifacts ranging from a tenth century crucifix to a stained glass window donated by local artist Gerhard Richter in 2007. Designed in a modern abstract style, the window is composed of a pixelated wash of joyous colors arrayed at random with the help of a computer.

Richter Window

Richter Window

The La Tène Celts dwelt upon this site before the Romans. They were an Indo-European people of the first millennium BCE with a warrior ethos, elegant metalwork, and fine ceramics.

Before the Celts, the area was home to a Linear Ceramic neolithic farming village which flourished in the sixth millennium BCE.

And before that, the region was inhabited by pre-humans. In the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in nearby Bonn, you can see the remains of “Neanderthal 1” (circa 40,000 BCE), discovered by Hermann Schaffhausen in the Kleine Feldhofer Grotte in 1856. Its discovery inaugurated the birth of paleoanthropology.

And just 50 km from Köln, the Kakus Caves were inhabited by neanderthals and humans from 100,000 BCE, down through to the High Middle Ages.

Paleolithic Tools

Paleolithic Hand Axes from the Kakus Caves

Near the French border, about an hour west of Köln by train, lies the town of Aachen, where you may see the cathedral of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. He was crowned on Christmas Day in the Year of Our Lord 800 by Pope Leo III. In this picture you can see the original cathedral that was once part of Charlemagne’s palace. The enormous brass chandelier was donated to the building by Emperor Friedrich Barabarossa, who was crowned in that chapel. It represents the city of New Jerusalem descending from the sky, as described in the Book of Revelation.

Aachener Dom

Aachener Dom

What we have here in a very small region, then, is the remains of almost every significant cultural stage of European development over the last 100,000 years, except for the Aurignacian horizon that flourished in France around 30,000 BCE, and apparently left little mark on the region.

That is quite a journey from my starting point in San Francisco, which until 1800 was inhabited by Ohlone tribes who left almost no material remains of any kind. The urban environment of San Francisco only began to take shape in the second half of the nineteenth century after the discovery of gold. Before that the peninsula was a trading outpost and a Spanish mission, dotted with seasonal villages used by the Native Americans.

Most of the Ohlone’s technology was based in wood, animal skins, and tule reeds, which they used to fashion their huts and excellent canoes. These material remains have not survived.

Ohlone Hut Replica

Ohlone Hut Replica, Mission San Francisco de Asís


Written by Mesocosm

July 16, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Posted in History

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. One day i look forward to taking in the expanse of time in tangible form by visiting the land of my ancestors. Even 200 years — filled with wars, cultural paradigm shifts, and technological leaps — seems difficult to grok, but thousands! Is your mind boggled by this daily?

    Juli Chamberlin

    July 27, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    • Much less so since I settled in Berlin, which is comparatively young, having began in the 13th century. Most of the old stuff here dates to the 19th century, and the city feels very young to me.


      July 28, 2011 at 6:06 am

  2. Aha, interesting. It makes sense that not every city would tangibly represent its long history — i imagine it takes concerted effort, and some accident, to maintain relics for hundreds of years.

    Juli Chamberlin

    July 28, 2011 at 5:44 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: