Archive for July, 2004

The origins of agriculture could be explained to the satisfaction of twentieth century materialists as resulting from a series of accidental discoveries, refined by natural selection. However, other achievements of the Neolithic, like the construction of cities and the rise of complex states, were not so easily dismissed as unintended adaptations to circumstances. It is very hard to build a city by accident.

In order to complete their mechanistic model, the archeologists were thus forced to turn from Darwin to Karl Marx.

In Marx’s theory of historical materialism, all social change starts with changes in the mean of production. Everything else, from government to religion, is merely a cultural superstructure erected upon the hard foundation of economics.

From this point of view, once the “Neolithic Revolution” had altered the way in which people met their basic needs, a whole array of other changes became inevitable, including all aspects of the “Urban Revolution.” It was just that simple.

However, this ultra-deterministic view of historical causality, which always involved a certain amount of hand-waving, has now been completely undermined by new data. It is becoming obvious that people were already living in villages before they began taming wild plants, and that even a few fair-sized cities were built by people who practiced relatively little agriculture. It is beginning to seem as though subjective factors, such as an active desire for the advantages of urban life, may have preceded and been the cause of the shift to farming, rather than its outcome.

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When modern humans first ventured out of East Africa some eighty or a hundred thousand years ago, they were few and the world was very large. For tens of thousands of years, they were free to wander at will, always seeking the next horizon. Driven by curiousity and a spirit of adventure, they spread over the entire planet with amazing speed.

Eventually Homo sapiens filled every corner of the Earth, from England to Tierra del Fuego — and at that point things started to get crowded. Suddenly people were having to deal with nearby neighbors, who might even be competitors, and they could no longer just pull up stakes and move to the next valley. Instead, they had to apply their ingenuity and make do with what was available.

The archaeological evidence shows a far more intensive exploitation of resources starting in the late Ice Age. People at that time learned how to spear fish and snare birds, they increased their level of cooperative interaction with dogs, and they worked hard at finding useful new food plants.

Most important of all, they began to take increased control of their environment. They became gardeners, altering local conditions to encourage the growth of plants which they favored. They developed the habit of bringing home interesting samples to replant and of herding animals to keep them close at hand. And they devised novel ways of processing plants which had previously been unpalatable, or even toxic, and turning them into heathy and delicious meals.

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