This blog is somewhere more reliable than my memory for me to collect my thoughts on why we live as we do today – in a world of gross inequality and obscene overconsumption. In Part 1 of this new series, I asked a bunch of questions around how we define our place in the world. To come up with a credible new narrative, which is vital if we are to survive, it is important to consider how the old one arose.
So there we were, Homo sapiens, living in harmony with the life around us. Then something changed. In an effort to control nature, perhaps to generate more certainty, we cut back on hunting and foraging to provide for our community’s needs, and settled down to grow food locally and in amounts that provided a surplus – just in case. Perhaps, in some places, our hunting and gathering alone was enough to impoverish an area, making settled agriculture a necessity if starvation was to be avoided. This shift from hunter-gatherer to pastoralist and beyond took place all over the world and at different points in time. But here, we’re considering the first time.
Based on archaeological evidence, we believe that the first settled agricultural communities originated by the early 9th millennium BCE in an area known as the Fertile Crescent (a region in the Middle East which curves, like a quarter-moon shape, from the Persian Gulf, through modern-day southern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt) [5, 6]. It is worth remembering that the job of archaeologists and anthropologists is never easy when investigating those who lived with such a light ecological footprint that little remains of their societies and ways of life. But the ancient countries of the region, such as Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, and Phoenicia, are regarded as some of the world’s earliest complex societies and they did leave a footprint.
What must it have felt like to witness that change, to live in a world of connections and abundance, only for others to appear, with new ideas, who tried to tame, if not destroy, your gods? Like Daniel Quinn, I reckon the dawn of agriculture was the ‘fall of man’ referred to in religious writings from the Holy Lands. We stopped trusting the gods (of nature) to provide as even in a land of plenty, they were too fickle and unreliable, and we replaced them all with a single deity. A pattern that would repeat itself over and over again as domination, exploitation and hierarchy as a way of living spread across the continents.
The 9th millennium BCE spans the years 8001 to 9000 BCE or 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, if you prefer. But this is not the start of our story. Before civilisations arose, H. sapiens and other hominins lived through glaciations or Ice Ages. As I’ve pondered in the past, how did the memory of the ‘days of ice’ shape the stories told by humans? Was the seemingly relentless ebbing and flowing of ice sheets the reason why the environment became something to be conquered rather than revered? Perhaps a vicious streak was essential to survive in such a hostile world? People are usually more peaceable if their needs are met than if they are not, and I’d guess this is quite an ancient trait. But I don’t believe, despite all I see around me, that humans are inherently destructive. How we live is dictated by a story.
Research published on 28 September 2017 suggests that modern humans, H. sapiens, emerged 300,000 years ago. From around 195,000 to 123,000 years ago, harsh climate conditions are thought to have reduced H. sapiens numbers from 10,000 to just a few hundred. One theory is that these early modern humans survived this Ice Age in caves along the southern coast of Africa.
As for the most recent Ice Age, which ‘ended’ some 11,700 years ago, DNA analysis suggests that Europe was occupied more or less continuously as, for 30,000 years, ice sheets came and went. “Old cultures died and new ones emerged over thousands of years, and the hunter-gatherer populations ebbed and flowed”, according to Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr of Cambridge University. Farming culture apparently arrived in Europe from the Middle East about 8,000 years ago, and it was only then that the structure of European population began to change significantly.
I reckon there were many pockets of people, over the millennia, surviving various environmental calamities in safe places which, once the stories came, would be remembered fondly as paradise or Eden – gardens of God. Obviously climate differs around the globe at any one time. Great civilisations may have flourished in the Fertile Crescent 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, but northern latitudes would still be a bit chilly. One thing we know is that human beings were well and truly modern during the last Ice Age, and living all over the world. Then came a new era of climatic warming and stability, albeit with some noteworthy floods as ice sheets collapsed. Imagine the stories!
In the next post, we’ll consider what happened between 300,000 years ago, when modern humans evolved, and 70,000 years ago, when Yuval Noah Harari’s Cognitive Revolution took place.
Mandy Meikle edits the Reforesting Scotland Journal, amongst other things, and 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.