The day after my last post, BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week was at the Hay Festival for a discussion about why Homo sapiens is so ‘successful’ (their word, not mine!). This programme introduced me to Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, his theory of the Cognitive Revolution, and his captivating book, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind (2011). I was enthralled by the idea that our ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers required a brain that could create and believe in fiction, a skill thought to have appeared some 70,000 years ago. Harari argues that all mass-scale human cooperation is based in the belief of fictional entities such as gods, nations, human rights and money.
I liked the way Harari’s mind worked: nations, money, human rights and, yes, religions are all stories we create to make sense of the world around us, and to maintain social order – don’t forget that important part of the puzzle. Why do these stories dominate today? Why does our story no longer teach that the environment sustains each and every one of us? When did certain groups of humans decide that they were not just able to understand and anticipate nature but were above it, able to control it, that it was theirs to do what they liked with? In short, God spaketh, but why?
Homo sapiens, like all life on Earth, evolved to live sustainably and connected to nature. We did so for many thousands of years, and some still do. So why the change in mindset? I reckon we developed the ability to learn from past events, such as floods and famines, through storytelling, before we realised that we could invent a story too, a story of a different future. We had come to understand the world in a way long since forgotten. We created gods and these gods seemed to persist until the dominant culture of the west invaded indigenous lands and minds.
In his series, Living with the gods, historian Neil MacGregor considers gifts to the gods. He tells of the indigenous Muisca people, who lived high in the Andes, in what is now Colombia, and thrived between 600AD and European contact. Part of their belief system was to consign highly-wrought gold figurines to the waters of Lake Guatavita to appease their gods and restore balance. “The Muisca believed that human beings were an integral part of the environment and they all live in an ecology of different relationships”, says Jago Cooper, curator of the South American collection at the British Museum, in a way that made it sound unusual. Didn’t all indigenous peoples believe this? And, over the years, in true European style, once rumours spread that these daft natives were throwing gold away, the lake was plundered, including a final piece of genius – drain the lake and see what’s there! A world such as this, where gold was tossed into a lake, a world without money, was inconceivable to the Europeans. Such differing values; for the Muisca the ‘value’ of gold was “tied up with ensuring peaceful equilibrium in the landscape and the cosmos, which meant surrendering forever things so glimmeringly attractive”. This was indeed a sacrifice, to forego the pleasure of admiring a glittering thing of beauty. Yet the Muisca were trading people, living in a reasonably complex society. They kept their gods until the Europeans came.
Meanwhile, Neil MacGregor explains that back in Europe, records of the treasures stored in the Parthenon, Athens, dating from around 400BC, reveal numerous gifts for the goddess Athena – gifts with a double role. The Parthenon was also a kind of central bank, capable of operating as a lender of last resort, creating an intimate connection between the temple of a goddess and the finance of the state. Muisca gold offerings were gone forever, as far as the Muisca were concerned; Greek gold was a gift to the gods as long as they didn’t need it back! It is this change from respecting and appeasing the gods, on the understanding that they were the driving force behind the natural world, that seems to change how we view ourselves in the world. The original story of how we should live could not withstand the new story of domination, exploitation and hierarchy. Time for another new story.
As the astute reader may notice, it’s been two-and-half years since I last posted. That’s not because nothing noteworthy happened! Focus, that’s my problem. So, in an attempt to write shorter and more regular blogs, I shall consider how the dominant story of settled agriculture came to be and how we might change the story again, to one more likely to persist. In the next post, we’ll go back to the beginning in the Fertile Crescent.
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal and is Secretary of a local Community Trust. Mandy is well aware that many people have dedicated their lives to studying history and anthropology, while she is merely dabbling. All comments and corrections gratefully received.