How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization

Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article at IO9 on early neolithic societies: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization.

Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.

…The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

…But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages, Kuijt speculates, may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them. He believes that major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.

The quotes above give a basic overview of the article, but the article is very well done with colorful images and informative diagrams, including a very interesting timeline.  If you’re interested, I highly recommend reading the full thing.  I learned some things from it, and I’m moderately well read in this area.  For instance, while I knew Çatalhöyük had been abandoned at some point, I wasn’t aware it was part of a general collapse.

As interesting as I did find this article, the basic hypothesis seems weak to me.  The reason is the vast time scales involved.  Remember that we’re talking about the period between when farming began, around 10,000 BC, until around 5000 BC.  That’s pretty much the same time span as recorded history.  Çatalhöyük, the main example Newitz discusses, flourished from c. 7500 BC until c. 5700 BC, almost two millenia.  No society in recorded history has managed to last that long (at least, not without creative historical interpretations of events).  In other words, it was a successful society for a very long time.

We also have to remember that these were pre-literate societies, so the people living in Çatalhöyük or similar settlements in 5700 BC almost certainly had no memory of how their hunter-gatherer ancestors had once lived.  Oral histories, and hence cultural traditions, just don’t survive intact more than a few centuries without evolving heavily.  (Literate societies generally have their core traditions in sacred documents that serve to limit that evolution, even if it doesn’t eliminate it.)  The idea that culture remained static from when hunter gatherers settled down until this late neolithic collapse millennia later seems implausible.

I don’t doubt that the neolithic settlements probably suffered from organizational problems.  They didn’t have writing yet, which had to limit how sophisticated their organizational structures could become.  But the idea that they held hunter-gatherer values for thousands of years, collapsed, and then figured out hierarchies to build civilization is probably too simplistic a view of what was more likely a complex evolution over thousands of years.

The timescales are interesting:

  • 200,000 BC: modern humans emerge in Africa
  • 90,000-60,000 BC: a portion of humanity migrates out of Africa
  • 12,000 BC: earliest settlements
  • 10,000-8000 BC: farming begins
  • 5500-5000 BC: the neolithic collapse the article discusses
  • 3000 BC: development of writing and the beginnings of record history

Sometimes I wonder if civilization isn’t just an aberration, a passing fad allowed by the current ice age interglacial period, that we may have to leave behind in the millennia to come.

 

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22 Responses to How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization

  1. john zande says:

    Enjoy your time in the sun!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Steve Morris says:

    Sounds like a highly speculative theory to me. Hunter-gatherers were presumably based on a flat social structure because there is little scope for differentiation of labour or specialization of skills. That is why they remained stuck at the hunter-gatherer level. As soon as people started to develop new skills, social differentiation was inevitable. It is the same thing. Farmers will carry out different tasks to specialists in other areas, and the social structure evolves. Economic growth and social structure are two sides of the same coin.

    I don’t think that we need worry too much about the next ice age. Now that division of labour is so entrenched, I’m sure that we can weather whatever nature throws at us. But I realise that’s an optimistic outlook.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed on both counts. I’m cautiously optimistic that civilization will continue, even if the ice age returns. But if I could look into a crystal ball 30,000 years into the future, I wouldn’t be shocked if humanity had fallen back to the lifestyle it had for almost all of its existence.

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  3. Sable Aradia says:

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Geek Queen and commented:
    I don’t know; needs more study and more corroborating evidence, but sounds plausible to me. I don’t see the lack of writing as an obstacle.

    Actually, I think it’s funny how arrogant we literate societies are, thinking that just because we have writing, we can preserve All The Knowledge. Tell that to the keepers of the library of Alexandria. Or the British military, whose records-building that kept track of the careers and service records of their enlisted men was bombed into rubble during the Blitz. The truth is that what we think of as preserved history is, at best, cobbled together from scraps.

    Imagine if someone tried to figure out our current civilization if none of the computers survived and time whittled away 90% of the written books and paper, chosen randomly (perhaps a Ms. magazine here, a recipe card there, a book of Grimm’s fairy tales with sixteen pages randomly destroyed, maybe half of a set of stereo instructions, possibly one third of a Gideon’s Bible and two thirds of a biology textbook . . . ) That’s pretty much what deciphering history is all about, and the farther back you go, the worse it gets.

    Memory is subject to adaptation, it’s true but . . . First, interpretation of data is subject to biases and politics. Second, lorekeepers were professionally trained in the art of memorization. Third, most of what you are talking about here is not memory at all. It is social custom, and social customs are imprinted upon us as small children and take active conditioning to break; and if you doubt that, I invite you to try to pee your pants deliberately in front of another adult at some point, even a spouse, and see if you can do it and how easy that is for you (yes, some people are going to say “That’s disgusting!” I would counter with, “See how deeply the conditioning affects you.”) Consider how difficult it is to change outmoded social customs like misogyny and racism when we, as a people, are making an active effort to do so.

    Granted, I hope she’s wrong. It’s a pretty pessimistic view to think that we must have strictly defined hierarchies to maintain large populations (though I suspect this may explain much about the stupid ways in which we as a people behave in large groups.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sable Aradia says:

    I don’t know; needs more study and more corroborating evidence, but sounds plausible to me. I don’t see the lack of writing as an obstacle.

    Actually, I think it’s funny how arrogant we literate societies are, thinking that just because we have writing, we can preserve All The Knowledge. Tell that to the keepers of the library of Alexandria. Or the British military, whose records-building that kept track of the careers and service records of their enlisted men was bombed into rubble during the Blitz. The truth is that what we think of as preserved history is, at best, cobbled together from scraps.

    Imagine if someone tried to figure out our current civilization if none of the computers survived and time whittled away 90% of the written books and paper, chosen randomly (perhaps a Ms. magazine here, a recipe card there, a book of Grimm’s fairy tales with sixteen pages randomly destroyed, maybe half of a set of stereo instructions, possibly one third of a Gideon’s Bible and two thirds of a biology textbook . . . ) That’s pretty much what deciphering history is all about, and the farther back you go, the worse it gets.

    Memory is subject to adaptation, it’s true but . . . First, interpretation of data is subject to biases and politics. Second, lorekeepers were professionally trained in the art of memorization. Third, most of what you are talking about here is not memory at all. It is social custom, and social customs are imprinted upon us as small children and take active conditioning to break; and if you doubt that, I invite you to try to pee your pants deliberately in front of another adult at some point, even a spouse, and see if you can do it and how easy that is for you (yes, some people are going to say “That’s disgusting!” I would counter with, “See how deeply the conditioning affects you.”) Consider how difficult it is to change outmoded social customs like misogyny and racism when we, as a people, are making an active effort to do so.

    Granted, I hope she’s wrong. It’s a pretty pessimistic view to think that we must have strictly defined hierarchies to maintain large populations (though I suspect this may explain much about the stupid ways in which we as a people behave in large groups.)

    Like

    • I think you make an excellent point that most knowledge gets lost, even in a literate society. What we know from ancient history is indeed pieced together from scraps, sometimes corroborated by archaeology, sometimes contradicted. Of course, before about 500 years ago, every society was non-literate except for a small ruling class in some of them.

      From what we know of both literate and non-literate societies, traditions evolve enormously over time, just as high school or office rumors do. Being sacred doesn’t eliminate that evolution, although it probably slows it down. Nonetheless, no ancient mythologies (that I know of) remembered their remote ancestors’ hunter-gatherer days. Most of them didn’t even have accurate histories of their society a few centuries before written records.

      In a literate society, we can see the evolution at various points. For example, the tradition of Nicolas of Myra evolving into Santa Claus can be observed at various points in its 1700 year history when someone wrote down the current version for their time. And we have observations of indigenous peoples contacted by colonialists, left alone for a century or more, and then recontacted, and were able to see how much the stories of those earlier contacts had morphed.

      I view hierarchies as a necessary evil. Modern societies have found ways to mitigate the worst aspects of them (such as electing who sits at the top, putting in checks and balances, etc). Technology is helping to keep people in those hierarchies honest, and may eventually provide a way to flatten them more.

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  5. I think the title of the article is a bit misleading. As you say, the time frame is enormous. To call such a civilization unsuccessful seems premature.

    The way you lay out the time periods was helpful. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Brett says:

    That theory seems pretty speculative to me, too. Hunter-Gatherer societies can develop hierarchies and stratification when groups are large and they’re living in the same area for a long period of time, such as the societies of the Pacific Northwest indigenous population.

    All that said, there probably was a history of certain groups getting ahead of others on this front, and then absorbing/conquering their neighbors. Conquest is a theme of a lot of ancient history (the consolidating of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the conquest of Sumer, etc). And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most societies ended up being dominated by warrior caste nobility – they conquered most of the societies that weren’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. I didn’t know there were large stratified hunter-gatherer societies, although from your description, they sound like maybe they were semi-settled. I may have to look up the Pacific Northwest peoples.

      I remember a historian talking about ancient Athens (usually considered an enlightened city-state) and their attitude toward war, which was very hawkish. He noted that pacifists were virtually non-existent in the ancient world, and that wars were pretty much never ending.

      Like

  7. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Didn’t the shift to farming cause a great deal of sickness at first? As I understand it we still see remnants of that today in people with gluten allergies. Humans had to adapt to new food sources as well as the need to stay in one place. It did represent a new equilibrium state for humanity.

    And, yeah, so far we’re just a tiny, tiny blip on the timescale.

    Like

    • From what I understand, until recent times, farming populations were not as healthy as hunter-gatherer ones, if they didn’t starve, get injured on the hunt, etc. But growing food and eating domestic animals provided a much surer source of food, allowed less mobile members of society to survive longer, and provided a lot of other benefits.

      Like

  8. Hi, as one of the commenters processed under the article – it is worth reading because it raises so many interesting questions. Phil Stanfield

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Why is life full of ups and downs? says:

    Çatalhöyük, the main example Newitz discusses, flourished from c. 7500 BC until c. 5700 BC, almost two millenia. No society in recorded history has managed to last that long (at least, not without creative historical interpretations of events)

    I think this article indicates that the Harappan civilization lasted that long as well:
    http://io9.com/a-civilization-without-war-1595540812

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really interesting. Thanks! I had heard the Harappans had running water, but didn’t know that they somehow managed to exist more or less peacefully for so long. That makes me wonder what their secret was.

      Like

  10. countpoopoo says:

    Reblogged this on a political idealist. .

    Like

  11. The Fury of a Patient Man says:

    Reblogged this on Beware the Fury of a Patient Man.

    Like

  12. Darren Pelli says:

    We honestly DO not know if these more ancient cultures had language. We only know of cultures that used stone tablets or other similar materials that would not degrade over the thousands of years. If the Akkadian empire did not use the materials which maintained their form we wouldn’t know they were writing down symbols used for communication(language). The ancient civilizations from before 3500BC were coordinated and large, along with the coastal civilizations from before 7500BC are now on the ocean floor. These early humans had built long enduring civilizations from our perspective. But without the written records it would seem like the people of Italy have constantly inhabited the Island and seem one civilization without knowing the history.

    Like

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      I think we can be pretty sure they had oral language, and that language goes back to at least the beginning of behavioral modernity at least 50,000 years ago. (Personally, I tend to think oral language is much more ancient and developed gradually over hundreds of thousands of years.)

      On written language, if they had it, they didn’t put it on any of the artifacts (pottery, statues, art, etc) they left behind, which all the later literate cultures did.

      I definitely agree though that the amount of time for the neolithic was vast. Hundreds of generations passed in those villages and settlements, and we can only guess broadly at what their lives were like by the artifacts they did leave behind.

      Like

  13. Pingback: First Peoples documentary series to air on PBS starting Wednesday | SelfAwarePatterns

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