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The Cavernous Mind: Man, Myth, and the Cave Monster

In author Jeff Long’s 1999 subterranean science fiction novel, The Descent, the reader is presented with a very unique take on the “clash between cultures” motif, as humankind is confronted with the revelation of a deep, dark, and long-held secret. So deep and dark, in fact, that it had remained hidden underground since time immemorial: that a separate branch of humans, dubbed Homo hadalis, had been existing in cavernous realms below ground.

Over time, the novel slowly reveals, this humanlike species existing below ground has interacted with humanity in sparing, but notable instances that gave rise to such literary works as Dante’s Inferno, and even mythic and religious depictions of hell or an underworld. Most disturbing of all, some of the book’s protagonists come to realize that the inspiration for Satan which appears in Abrahamic religious traditions had actually been inspired by a mysterious individual who, somehow, had actually managed to persist over long periods of time, interacting with various notable figures throughout history.

In addition to its cave monsters-meets-DaVinci Code feel, the book also contains a number of excellent themes borrowed from other famous “underworld” literature, drawing obvious influence from such works as Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race, as well as Richard Sharp Shaver’s later writings about an underground race of “detrimental robots” popularized in pulp magazines in the 1940s.

Fantastical though it is, Long’s novel presents a number of interesting considerations about humanity, and what it actually means to be human. In particular, one of the most unique aspects of Long’s novel has to do with the connections that begin to emerge linking the Hadals with humankind. While the book surmises that the two groups share a common ancestry, the story also reveals over time how there are unique aspects of Hadal physiology that contemporary humans can appear to adapt after spending enough time below ground; similarly, certain Hadals are able to find ways of blending in with humans on the surface world, too.

Such themes touch on the age-old motif of humanity’s conflict with nature: how close are we, really, to reverting back to the wild ways of our forebears? Arguably, this common theme is perhaps most prevalent today with the fascination people have with Bigfoot, an animal unproven by science that supposedly resembles humans more than any other creature… and yet, often it is still referred to as an “animal” by most proponents of its existence. Eventually one must ask at what point, precisely, the imaginary line between “human” and “beast” can actually be drawn?

In the sciences, understanding this distinction has created a complex and ever-shifting narrative. Most notably, the definitions once accepted for things like “culture” have had to change after animals—most often our primate cousins—were observed engaging in similar behaviors once thought specific to humankind.

Which brings us back to the subject of Bigfoot; regardless of whether or not one entertains the existence of such creatures, it is clear that our interest in mystery beasts fulfills a deeper need humans appear to have, as far as questions about human origins, and the often superficial characteristics we use to make distinctions between ourselves, and other members of the animal kingdom.

Even beyond the subject of manlike monsters, mythology plays an important role in little-understood areas of human thought. This is clearly the case with the myriad mythologies, beliefs, and sacred significance appended to caves since ancient times. Early human cultures appear to have treated cave enclosures as sacred spaces, and art depicted on the walls of sites such as Lascaux and Chauvet caves in France, among others, clearly shows that these areas within the Earth allowed the ancient mind to broaden its mythical horizons, commemorating the human experience through depictions of everything from ancient fauna and hunts, to what may likely be ritual symbols.

On occasion, imaginary human-animal hybrids were also featured, such as a lion-headed therianthrope depicted on the walls of one of the chambers at the aforementioned Chauvet cave. In truth, Bigfoot might even be considered the quintessential “hybrid” creature of modern times, that similarly bridges the worlds of humanity with that of our beastly kindred.

In his 1972 book Bigfoot, wherein the skeptical primatologist John Napier actually made the case that some of the evidence for creatures like Sasquatch was actually convincing, in his opinion, the author also addressed the value of mythology in relation to the discussion of Sasquatch, and more importantly, to the human mind, writing:

“I have suggested that myth and legend have survival value for mankind, and are therefore subject to natural selection like all physical and many behavioral characteristics of man. We are far from understanding exactly what the role of a hypothetical myth-gene could be, but perhaps it is connected with man’s highly socialized ‘state. Bonds and allegiances are the bedrock of our society, as they are of many nonhuman primate societies.”

On the subject of “bonds and allegiances” being the bedrock of society, one needs to look no further for evidence than the fandom “cults” that form around everything from popular films and television series, to conferences themed around comic books, animation, and general “geekdom” in the broader sense. Perhaps an even better example, though, exists in the allegiances formed with respect to favored sports teams; quite clearly, humans rely on being able to spot “team colors” in order to maintain our societal footholds.

This phenomenon manifests at popular events themed around such things as Bigfoot and cryptozoology, too. Wherever these social phenomena appear, at the root of it all is the process of finding others who share in our beliefs and interests, which helps us find a sense of community, and thereby we feel less alone. Perhaps in the broader sense, the idea of there being “monsters” performs a similar function: as humans, we somehow feel less alone through the acceptance that our world may be home to “monsters,” which in some remote way are still something like us. 

Whether it’s monsters just beyond the reach of science on the fringes of civilization, or humankind’s fascination with caves that go into unexplored depths below us, the same premise holds true: humans appear to have a need for those things which exist beyond our reach, and which feed our imaginations. Or as Napier wrote, and indeed may have said it best, “Man needs his gods—and his monsters—and the more remote and unapproachable they are, the better.”  

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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