If there ever was a time a teacher of mine devoted an iota of their lesson plan to a bunch of stone age graffiti inside a dank cave in the north of Spain, it would have amounted to little more than an utterance before moving on to the other side of the Mediterranean where things were really hopping. The Middle East, and more specifically Mesopotamia, was rather busy establishing what would end up being the bases of all of modern civilization. A daunting task, to say the least, and it certainly kept their minds occupied. Nowadays a region often maligned for being backward, in the dawn of ancient times, Mesopotamia and its peoples were at the head of the progress pack in almost every way. Let’s see just a smattering of what our friends from Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia (and later Phoenicia and Egypt) would contribute to the betterment of mankind: agriculture, irrigation, metalworking, medicine, writing, engineering (including dams and large buildings), urban design, the wheel, coordinated transportation, arithmetic, accounting, banking, money, astronomy, and, of course, beer and winemaking. And that’s just the important stuff.
So there was good reason for the teacher to focus our attention on developments there, but that doesn’t mean nothing was shaking in other parts of the Mare Nostrum; we just weren’t privy to it. The Iberian Peninsula was quite active, if you want know, and even if you don’t, I’ll be telling you about it anyway.
Just what was it like back then? Legend has it, and this seems to be confirmed rather fervently by wishful-thinking environmentalists, that the land was one lush forest.
So fraught with vegetation was the territory, according to the story handed down over the generations, that the classical Greek geographer, Strabo, was said to have claimed that a squirrel could cross the span of the land, from coast to coast, without ever having to touch the ground. A shocking bit of news if you are in any shape or form familiar with the average landscape in this country, especially around the middle part. Either the plains were really once that loaded with forests or the rodent was equipped with bionic legs.
There is, however, yet another explanation: it’s total bull. Strabo never mentioned the animal, let alone its extraordinary feat. That’s reason enough to cast doubt on the whole story. Has deforestation taken its toll on the country over its three thousand years of history? Why not. My home state of Connecticut was nearly stripped naked in just two hundred before the forests began to come back, so there is no telling.
Chances are, though, the change was not as dramatic as some would like to believe.
While the red squirrel still exists in Spain, the Spaniards are fascinated by this little creature and can see packs (of people that is) following them all over Retiro Park, the tru boss by numbers is the one and only rabbit. In fact, and this was a big revelation for me when I first heard about it, the very name of the country has its origins in this lupine creature. Word has it, the Phoenicians, we’ll get back to them in a little while, were so bowled over the infinite number of bunnies hopping around that they name the land I-spn-ya (land of the rabbits). I shit you not. Some hardcore Spaniards question this theory through and through, feeling it isn’t dignified enough, especially when you consider the animal is also used in Spanish as a connotation for female genitalia, but it seems to be the story that holds up the best.
In addition to a ton of rodents of different sizes and shapes, there was also quite a bit of human activity. Not necessarily the kind that erected 500ft pyramids or who laid down the foundations of the modern legal system, but they were certainly keeping themselves busy staying alive. This was when I learned that there were lots of them. To simplify matters they came in two basic forms: the Celts and the Iberians.
“Really? The Celts? The ones who lived in Ireland? The ones who gave us basketball in Boston?”
My friend Pepe insisted that it was true. “The even have their own bagpipe.”
Well, it turns out once again, that my old friend Pepe was telling the truth. The bagpipe has existed in the northwest of Spain since the Middle Ages and probably made its way to the British Isles later. Who would have guessed? The same can be said of the Celts themselves. Recent genetic studies show that many original Britons and Irish are closely tied to the Celts from the Spain, DNA-wise, and most likely came from that region when the fishermen sailed up to those parts around 6,000 years ago. What do you know…that really must irritate the Brits to no end. And that, of course, gives me a good laugh.
Anyway, as I was saying. You had your Iberians and Celts and when they met, took a fancy to each other, and got drunk and horny, they produced Celt-Iberians. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. There were literally scores of tribes and nations roaming around the land. Here is just a sampling: you have your Vettones in Extramadura, your Vaccaei in the Salamanca area, your Lusitani in Portugal (that’s where they get the name of the ill-fated ship the Lusitania), the Carpetani in the middle of the land, the Oretani near Jaen, the Turdetani in Andalusia, the Astures in Asturias, the Vascones in the Basque Country (they have always been there), and so on. There’s just no end to it. Some were more advanced than others, but true progress wouldn’t come until the boys from the other side of the Mediterranean showed up. Then things really started rolling…as we will see.