Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Ancient history

To help us think more systematically about the present issues, I want to review how we got here, beginning at what is for these purposes the beginning. Anatomically modern humans -- people whose skeletons are essentially indistinguishable from ours -- appeared around 250,000 years ago, maybe a bit sooner. We can't be entirely sure because there could be older fossils we haven't found, but probably close enough. Genus Homo culture had changed very slowly before then. Homo erectus had pretty much the same tool kit for 1 million years. 


But shortly after the appearance of H. sapiens -- apparently not immediately but somewhere around 80-100,000 years ago or maybe more (this is uncertain and disputed, don't sweat the small stuff), human culture began to evolve rapidly, quite abruptly. Our ancestors expanded into new habitats and rapidly developed new technologies and behavioral adaptations to exploit them. Symbolic items appeared, beads and decorated items. (There could have been much more but it hasn't survived.) There is evidence of long distance trade networks. People left Africa and began to expand into Europe and Asia, adapting to radically different climates and ecological regimes. Of course we can't be sure why and how this happened so dramatically "in the dark backward and abysm of time," but the likely explanation in the view of most is language. Somehow, in the blink of an eye in geological time, an ape began to speak. And that's what makes us what we are.

Again, we can't be sure what human society was like before the agricultural revolution, but based on low population density, foraging societies known in historical times (and some still exist) we can guess based on the assumption that they were similar, and these guesses are consistent with the archaeological record. Here's the basic story.

Humans lived in small bands, no more than a few dozen people, who were kin. The societies were highly egalitarian. Since women had to be pregnant, and breastfeed, there was gendered division of labor to accommodate that. Men did most (not necessarily all) of the hunting, while women stayed closer to the hearth, foraged and did more domestic tasks. That doesn't imply inferior social status, however. Women in hunter-gatherer societies are autonomous and participate in group decisions. People had few personal possessions and shared food and other important resources so there was essentially material equality. There was likely an individual who people looked up to to mediate disputes and make big decisions, but there wasn't a formal social role, this was achieved based on personal qualities. There might be an individual who communicated with the spirits and treated the sick, but the shaman was not a priest. He or she didn't promulgate moral laws or preach sermons. 

Social cohesion and cooperation were enforced by consensus. Transgressors might be shunned, or made to live outside the camp for a few days.  For the most serious transgressions, violent revenge might be taken, but such instances are rare in known hunter-gatherer societies. Neighboring bands that spoke the same language were part of a larger recognized group. Typically, marriage outside the band was the norm, or even required. Usually that meant women would leave the band and join the husband's group, although there are other patterns. It gets complicated, but the point is that people had kinship ties with their neighbors that helped assure good relations. Sadly, however, war with unrelated neighbors did occur in some cases. There are some examples of what appear to have been ancient war incidents, or some form of mass murder, and some historical hunter gatherers were often at war with their neighbors, while others were not. (Notably the Iroquois Federation, five Native American tribes, forged a long-term peace. According to legend, this was accomplished by a man called The Peacemaker who established their political system and also expounded a spiritual philosophy.) The existence of long-distance trade networks, even 100,000 years ago, shows that peaceful coexistence with neighbors was probably the norm, at least in some regions.

When a band got too big, it would fission. Apparently social cohesion could not be maintained with groups that were too large without more formal institutions. There is obviously a great deal more that can be said about this era, but the point I want to make is that the kinds of debates we have today about the proper organization of society, the role of government, religion, private enterprise and other social institutions just don't apply to human society for the greater part of our existence. All of this came later, and we'll get to it next time.

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