Archive for the ‘The Roots of Civilization’ Category

People who specialize in digging up human fossils tell us that until about 15-20 thousand years ago, we all looked very much alike. Back then, everyone on the planet apparently resembled present-day Australian aborigines, with broad faces and strongly pronounced features.

But after that, we started changing rapidly — at least on the surface. So-called racial distinctions appeared, distinctions that are usually regarded negatively because they make us look different from one another and now present barriers to global harmony. What is far less often noted is that those changes also made us prettier. All of us. Though each group adapted according to its own unique standards of beauty, in every region our facial contours became smoother and more delicate, our hair more appealing in form or color, our bodies sleeker and sexier.

There’s an easy explanation for that — the old Darwinian standby of sexual selection. In a simple tribal society, success at producing and raising offspring is largely determined by basic physical and mental fitness. But once society becomes just a bit more complex and distinctions of wealth and power appear, the game changes radically. The most dynamic and charismatic men take on leadership roles, which typically gives them the opportunity to father children by multiple women. The most attractive and charming women appeal to the top-ranked men, and that offers their own children a better chance to survive, become leaders in turn, and have first choice of mates.

Read the rest of this entry »

The standard twentieth century story would have us believe that very little happened between the development of agriculture and the rise of civilization — that it was a time of simple peasant villages, with few interests beyond securing the next harvest and few inventions besides ingenious domestic devices, like the technology of churning butter or spinning flax.

However, it is now becoming clear that the period from roughly 7000 to 4000 BC gave rise to one of humanity’s greatest intellectual breakthroughs — the first scientific cosmology. The movements of the sun and stars were closely tracked and were found to mark out an astonishingly precise four-fold partition of both space (the cardinal directions — north, south, east, and west) and time (the winter and summer solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.)

This recognition of a profound cosmic order underlying the flux of everyday life completely revolutionized art and religion, transforming the domain of human consciousness from a world of whim and accident to one of order and predictability.

This electrifying discovery has generally been attributed to simple farmers seeking clues on when to plant their crops. It has been described as an inevitable insight once people had settled down to the land and could watch the rising point of the sun move back and forth along the same mountain year after year.

But for those who lived through it, this intellectual revolution was far from obvious. It took careful long-term observation and analysis, carried out over many lifetimes, and the radical alteration in perspective which resulted was as dramatic and unexpected in its own time as those resulting from the Copernican system in the 16th century or Einstein’s relativity in the 20th.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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?

Read the rest of this entry »