The story so far?

portal stone1
Avebury Portal Stone, Tara Evans, 2015 (mixed media on canvas)

I’m inspired to write today by some new work by my fave thinker of the moment, David Graeber and his colleague David Wengrow (‘How to Change the Course of Human History’, Eurozine). Do read the article if you have time and inclination, you can find it here. It’s a fascinating re-examination of human ‘history’ (scare quotes since most of our past is ‘prehistory’, and the authors call for more archaeological evidence and less theory to be brought into the narrative of the human past), much richer and more complex than the simplified narrative of the past that I was taught at Oxford. Of course, the constant expansion of our knowledge about the past is a factor – when I was studying in the 2000s, no-one had yet discovered that we interbred with Neanderthals or Denisovans, for example. Scientific advances and the expansion of archaeological investigations into previously unexplored regions mean that our story of the past is always changing. That’s one of the reasons it’s an exciting topic, but also a cautionary lesson in how to present knowledge in any subject. Every single documentary about anything should be constantly repeating ‘as far as we know right now’ after every assertion, until we are driven crazy by it.

It’s much easier to break down the information we gain from looking at the universe into discrete chunks, and this may in fact be the way our minds work. It may be useless and even fatal in survival situations to see a big, rich, complex picture. Imposing simpler structures and discontinuous thinking onto the astoundingly complex ‘real world’ is perhaps the only way to begin to exercise some control over it. In the story of our past, this translates into the ‘evolution of culture’.

That story goes: from the time before our species, Homo sapiens, evolved (about 200,000 years ago), people lived in small mobile bands composed of extended family groups, and hunted and gathered. Although our species and previous species (Homo erectus and Neanderthals) had spread over much of the face of the Earth, often crossing open ocean to do so, it is often proposed that these people did not have fully evolved minds or language (but see here). This has generally been assumed to be the case because of an ‘explosion of culture’ observable in the archaeological record of Europe in particular, around 40,000 years ago. Cave paintings, statuettes, a huge variety of new and specialised tools appear, including needles, which allow people to make tailored clothing and expand into colder regions.

Life goes on for another 30,000 years or so until the climate settles down and the pattern of seasons that we are familiar with today makes the invention of farming possible. Farming makes people stop moving around, in order to guard their farms, crops and the surpluses of food which are the whole point of farming. Property and the assertion of ownership become important, and for the first time inherited status and wealth appear. This paves the way from 6000 years or so ago for the invention of ‘states’ – societies which build cities and have extreme variations of wealth and status and clear division of labour. The surpluses generated by states allow them to sponsor full-time craftspeople, architects, priests and administrators. The latter invent writing systems in order to keep track of trade and payments, and then realise that writing can also be used for other purposes – art, religion, history.

Then history starts and according to received Western wisdom, we get various  civilisations in Central and Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean for a while until – phew! the Greeks come along and everything really gets going. From there, aside from a little dent in progress for a thousand years or so after the Romans, we have a clear line of development to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire. We know that there was something going on in China, something going on in the Americas – but these people were not the ‘winners’ in global history at this time and so they don’t deserve much space in the narrative.

It’s a nice simple story and it’s reassuring – we are making progress! Yay, go us! It conveniently bypasses all the complexity and inter-connectedness that make up real human life and real human ‘history’. It completely ignores the very real consequences of this ‘progress’ to people crushed and eradicated by it, to the environment and to the physical and mental health of even the ‘winners’ of history – those of us who live inside the modern states which lie at the end of the story. Graeber and Wengrow seek to put the complexity back in. Theirs is a political argument as much as an archaeological/anthropological one and in dissolving the categories in the ‘evolutionary’ version of our past they bring up some interesting examples such as some very rich burials from the Ice Age (Sunghir, for example) which speak of heirarchies of some kind long before farming proper, as well as the remarkable site of Göbekli Tepe, now becoming very well known.

Farming itself is not a sudden invention, and the authors assert that it often takes up to 3000 years to take firm hold in the regions into which it disseminates. Techniques of farming and settled life were not a new ‘invention’ – people did and still do come together and settle down for a season to exploit salmon runs, herd migrations or vegetable bounties such as acorns or grasses before separating again into more mobile bands for the rest of the year. As they travel, many mobile peoples modify their landscapes, opening up space for their preferred food plants to grow, spreading seeds along their paths, making clearings to attract game animals.

And those people who preferred not to become farmers, herders, city dwellers? They are not ‘primitive’ peoples, they have had just as much cultural evolution as the most ‘sophisticated’ tech-savvy, supermarket-dependent wage-slave in any city in the world. At the end of this programme on Radio 4 recently, it’s suggested that these peoples are the ones with the more robust ways of life, perhaps the peoples with the right idea about the good life – anthropologist Marshall Sahlins once called hunter-gatherers ‘the original affluent society’. But calling such people and their life ways ‘primitive’ allows us to exploit and destroy them and not feel too bad about it. Just like during that wonderful ‘civilising’ project, the British Empire, we are really doing them all a favour.

If we lose the richness and complexity of human life, we risk the dangers of any form of ‘monoculture’. We may all be swept away by the same disease, by the same financial crash, by the same war. We become weaker and paler, more domesticated and docile. We are no longer challenged by difference and we can self-justify whatever we want because no other evidence exists any longer. That, of course, is not the main reason why we should respect other people’s cultures and choices. No, we should do that because it the real hallmark of civility and progress away from barbarity.

2 thoughts on “The story so far?

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