Archive for June, 2004

As long as prehistoric hunter-gatherers were regarded as simple-minded savages, it was difficult to imagine how they could have come up with the radical innovations that marked the onset of the Neolithic. The typical response of twentieth century archaeologists to this problem was to deny that any genuine creativity had been involved. Instead, they did their best to reduce the profound social and technological transformations of the early Neolithic to an almost entirely automatic process, driven by impersonal environmental forces and requiring little or no actual thought or planning.

The primary model on which archaeologists based this analysis was that of Darwinian evolution. Each small step towards agriculture was considered as a kind of random mutation which one hunting group or another could have stumbled onto by accident. In accordance with the principle of survival of the fittest, those groups which adopted practices that increased their food supply would have prospered as the expense of those which did not. In the course of time, the natural superiority of farming would have ensured its dominance over hunting.

This scenario may have seemed convincing to twentieth century materialists, but there were any number of problems with it, not least the delicate question of just what constitutes evolutionary fitness. Recent studies of both ancient and contemporary hunters and farmers have shown that farmers work harder, have a less nutritious diet, and die younger than hunter-gatherers. Rather than taking the superiority of farming for granted, archaeologists are now struggling to answer the question of why hunters would have voluntarily given up their freedom and leisure in order to become peasants bound to the soil.

But perhaps the most profound difficulty with the standard twentieth century account of the Neolithic was the way it cast this dramatic retooling of human society as being the work of terminally clueless idiots. Farming, for example, was supposed to have resulted when some half-bright caveman noticed useful crops flourishing on the trash-heap of a former campsite and got the daring notion that they had grown there from discarded seeds. Pottery was similarly supposed to have been discovered when a lump of clay accidentally fell in the fire.

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One of the claims commonly made by twentieth century realists was that it was fruitless to look in the past for the state of wonder reflected in ancient myths and fairy tales. They insisted that the lives of prehistoric peoples were far more limited than our own, ruled in a mechanistic fashion by instinctual drives towards food, sex, and power. The obvious implication was that the present moment was as good as things had ever been, and that anyone who thought differently must be either a hopeless romantic or just not very good at coping with the world around them.

But what if the realists’ claim was false? What if it consisted of nothing more than self-favoring conclusions drawn from superficial surveys of the world’s last few remaining archaic societies? And what if those societies themselves were only pale remnants of the great paleolithic and neolithic cultures, living fossils that maintained the external forms of an ancient way of life but had lost its potential for growth and self-transformation?

Let us suppose, if only for the sake of argument, that ancient peoples inhabited a world vastly more expansive and filled with possibilities than the imaginally cramped quarters we tolerate today. Would that change our view of our own lives? Might it cause us to doubt the path we have followed?

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