Neanderthals and the beginnings of us

The Smithsonian has an interesting article up on what we currently know about Neanderthals.  The article details some of the internecine battles that always seems to be a part of the paleoanthropology field, in this case focusing on the capabilities of Neanderthals, whether they had art, religion, and other qualities of modern humans.

Our view of Neanderthals has undergone a radical transformation from when they were first discovered in the 19th century.  Then they were thought of a ape-men, large lumbering brutes who probably didn’t have language, clothing, or brains to speak of.  As recently as a few decades ago, in the movie Quest for Fire (one of my favorite movies, despite its flaws), Neanderthals were portrayed as mental inferiors who often acted like monkeys.

But in science, evidence always has the final word:

A new body of research has emerged that’s transformed our image of Neanderthals. Through advances in archaeology, dating, genetics, biological anthropology and many related disciplines we now know that Neanderthals not only had bigger brains than sapiens, but also walked upright and had a greater lung capacity. These ice age Eurasians were skilled toolmakers and big-game hunters who lived in large social groups, built shelters, traded jewelry, wore clothing, ate plants and cooked them, and made sticky pitch to secure their spear points by heating birch bark. Evidence is mounting that Neanderthals had a complex language and even, given the care with which they buried their dead, some form of spirituality. And as the cave art in Spain demonstrates, these early settlers had the chutzpah to enter an unwelcoming underground environment, using fire to light the way.

It seems clear now that if we were to encounter Neanderthals today, they might look a bit strange to us, but we would quickly come to regard them as people.  Indeed, that appears to be what our ancestors did.

The real game-changer came in 2013, when, after a decades-long effort to decode ancient DNA, the Max Planck Institute published the entire Neanderthal genome. It turns out that if you’re of European or Asian descent, up to 4 percent of your DNA was inherited directly from Neanderthals.

4% may not seem like much, but my understanding is that it represents a lot of interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis.  These weren’t one off encounters, the results of deviants from one or both species.  It indicates pretty wide integration.

Decades ago, there were two prevailing theories about how modern humans evolved.  One held that we had gradually evolved from earlier Homo species, primarily Homo erectus, throughout the world, with ongoing genetic exchanges.  In this model, called Multiregional Evolution, Europeans evolved mostly separately from eastern Asians who evolved mostly separately from Africans, etc.

The other view, called the Replacement model, or Recent African Origin theory, held that modern humans had evolved in Africa, and then sometime in the last 50,000-100,000 years had migrated out and spread throughout the world, displacing any other Homo species they encountered.

The debate between these two views raged on for decades, with the evidence gradually growing in favor of the Replacement model, before genetic research finally weighed in on it and sealed the deal.  It turns out that modern humans evolved in Africa within the last 200,000-300,000 years.  All of us today are descended from these Africans.  A branch of humanity migrated out of Africa sometime between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago, spreading throughout the world.  All non-Africans are descended from this branch.

But while the Replacement model was mostly right, it wasn’t entirely right.  As mentioned above, further research showed that non-Africans have DNA from other branches of humanity.  European ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, and Asian ancestors probably interbred with another branch of humanity called Denisovans.

One of the theories about why these other branches of humanity died out, prevalent until just a few years ago, was that Homo sapiens probably wiped them out.  I have to admit that this dark genocidal theory seemed plausible to me at the time.  Neanderthals in particular had been around for hundreds of thousands of years, only disappearing when modern humans came around.

But it now strikes me as more plausible that Neanderthals weren’t wiped out.  They were assimilated.  This is referred to as the Assimilation Model in the article.  The population of Neanderthals was never more than a few thousand individuals, while the incoming Homo sapiens population was reportedly in the tens of thousands.  It seems likely that what happened was some degree of interbreeding, merging, and assimilation.

I’m sure that doesn’t mean it was all sweetness and light.  Homo sapiens were an invading force.  I’m sure there was conflict, and some of it was probably brutal.  There’s too much continuity in violent behavior from other primates to humans to think it wouldn’t have happened.  But we’re also a pragmatic species, one whose members will make alliances when it’s the best option.  It seems clear that happened in at least some portion of the encounters.

All of which indicates that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had enough in common to recognize each other’s humanity.  Which also means that their common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, who lived from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago, likely had many of the qualities we’d recognize in people.  There’s no evidence they had what’s now called behavioral modernity, including symbolic thought, but they must have had a lot of what makes us…us, including perhaps an early form of language, or proto-language.

But this is a field where new evidence is constantly being uncovered and paradigms shifted, so we should probably expect more surprises in the years to come.

Breakthroughs in imagination

When thinking about human history, it’s tempting to see some developments as inevitable.  Some certainly were, but the sheer amount of time before some of them took place seem to make them remarkable.

The human species, narrowly defined as Homo sapiens, is about 200,000 years old.  Some argue that it’s older, around 300,000 years, others that full anatomical modernity didn’t arrive in total until 100,000 years ago.  Whichever definition and time frame we go with, the human species has been around far longer than civilization, spending well more than 90% of its existence in small hunter-gatherer tribes.  (If we broaden the definition of “humanity” to the overall Homo genus, then we’ve spent well over 99% of our history in that mode.)

For tens of thousands of years, no one really seemed to imagine the idea of a settled, sedentary lifestyle, until around 10,000-12,000 years ago in the Middle East.  I’ve often wondered what those first settlers were thinking.  Did they have any idea of the world changing significance of what they were doing?  More than likely, they were solving their own immediate problems and judged the solutions by the immediate payoff.

The earliest sedentary, or semi-sedentary culture appears to have been a group we now call the Natufians.  Living on the east coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, they were in a nexus of animal migrations and, in their time, a lush environment.  Life for them was relatively good.  They appear to have gotten a sedentary lifestyle effectively for free, in other words, without having to farm for it.

Then the climate started to change, an event called the Younger Dryas cooled the world for a brief period (brief in geological time, over a millenia in human time), but it was long enough to endanger the easy lifestyles the Natufians had probably become used to.  After centuries or millenia of living in a sedentary environment, they likely had little or no knowledge of how to live the way their ancestors had.

Victims of circumstance, they were forced to innovate, and agriculture emerged.  Maybe.  This is only one possible scenario, but it strikes me as a very plausible one.  The earliest evidence of nascent agriculture reportedly appears in that region in that period.

Early proto-writing from Kish, c. 3500 BC
Image credit: Locutus Borg via Wikipedia

Another development that took a long time was writing.  The oldest settlements arose several thousand years before writing developed.

The traditional view of the development of writing was that it evolved from pictures.  But as Mark Seidenberg points out in his book, Language at the Speed of Sight, picture drawing is far more ancient than writing.  The oldest cave art goes back 40,000 years, but what we call writing only arose about 5000 years ago, in Mesopotamia according to most experts (although some Egyptologists insist the Egyptian system came first).

It appears that the mental jump from pictures to symbols representing concepts was not an easy transition.  What caused it?  Seidenberg presents an interesting theory developed by archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat.

Starting around 8000 BC, people in the Middle East started using small clay figures, called “tokens” today, as an accounting tool.  The tokens were simple shapes such as cones, disks, or shell like forms.  A token of a particular shape represented something like a sheep, or an amount of oil, or some other trade commodity.  Pragmatic limitations in producing the tokens kept their shapes simple, instead of being accurate detailed depictions of what they represented.

A number of tokens were placed in sealed clay containers, presumably one for each actual item.  The container was sent along with a trade shipment so the recipient would know they were receiving the correct items in the correct amounts.  In time, in order to know what kinds of tokens were in a particular container, a 2D impression, a picture of the token, was often made on the container, in essence a label indicating which tokens it contained.

It then gradually dawned on people that they could get by with just the labels, with the token shape and some indicator of quantity.  No container or actual physical tokens required.  According to the theory, written symbolic representation of concepts had arrived.

The earliest proto-writing systems were a mixture of symbols and pictures.  Over time, the picture portions did evolve into symbols, but only after the conceptual breakthrough of the symbols had already happened.

The early Bronze Age writing systems  were difficult, requiring considerable skill to write or read.  Reading and writing was effectively a specialty skill, requiring a class of scribes to do the writing and later reading of messages and accounts.  It took additional millenia for the idea of an alphabet, with a symbol for each language sound, to take hold.

The earliest known alphabet was the Proto-Sinaitic script found in the Sinai peninsula dating to sometime around 1800-1500 BC.  It appears to have been the precursor to the later Canaanite script, which itself was a precursor to the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets that arose around 1100-1000 BC.  The Phoenicians were sea traders and spread their alphabet around the Mediterranean.  The Greeks would adapt the Phoenician alphabet, add vowels to it (a necessity driven by the fact that Greek was a multi-syllable language, as opposed to the Semitic languages, which were dominated by monosyllable words), and then use it to produce classical Greek civilization.

The development of these alphabets would lead to a relative explosion in ancient literature.  This is why studying Bronze Age societies (3300-1200 BC) is primarily an exercise in archaeology, but studying the later classical ages of Greece and Rome is primarily about studying historical narratives, supplemented by archaeology.

Why did so much of this take place in the Middle East?  Probably because, for thousands of years, the Middle East lay at the center of the world, a nexus of trading paths and ideas.  It seems entirely possible to me that some of these breakthroughs happened in other lands, but that we first find archaeological evidence for them in the Middle East because they were imported there.  The Middle East only lost this central role in the last 500 or so years, a result of the European Age of Exploration and the moving of world trade to the seas.

So, are there any new ideas, any new basic breakthroughs on the scale of agriculture or writing that are waiting for us, that we simply haven’t conceived of yet?  On the one hand, you could argue that the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, along with the rise of the internet in the last couple of decades, and the dramatically increased collaboration they bring in, have ensured that the low hanging fruit has been picked.

On the other hand, you could also argue that all of these systems are built using our existing paradigms, paradigms that are so ingrained in our cognition that they simply may not point to breakthroughs waiting to happen.  We don’t know what we don’t know.

It’s worth noting that the execution of agriculture and writing are not simple things.  Most of us, if dropped unto an ancient farm, despite the techniques being much simpler than modern farming, would have no idea where to even begin.  Or know how to construct an appropriate alphabet for whatever language was in use at the time.  (Seidenberg points out that not all alphabets are useful for all languages.  The Latin alphabet this post is written may be awkward for ancient Sumerian or Egyptian.)

It may be that the idea of farming or writing did occur to people in the paleolithic, but they simply had no conception of how to make it happen.  In this view, these seeming breakthroughs are really the result of incremental improvements, none of which individually were that profound, that eventually added up to something that was profound.  Consider again the two theories above on how farming and writing came about.  Both seem more plausible than one lone genius developing them out of nothing, primarily because they describe incremental improvements that eventually add up to a major development.

Ideas are important.  They are crucial.  But alone, without competence, without the underlying pragmatic knowledge, they are impotent.  On the other hand, steady improvements in competence often cause us to stumble on profound ideas.  I think that’s an important idea.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

When were the earliest parts of the Bible written?

The NY Times has an interesting article about a study which purports to show that literacy may have been far more prevalent in pre-Babylonian exile Judah than many had thought.  The implication, it’s believed, is that Biblical minimalist scholars who thought that no part of the Bible was composed until after the exile, are wrong.

But most of the stuff I’ve read actually pegs the earliest writings of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible as happening between 900 BC and 586 BC.  Why these date ranges?

Well, to start, here’s a quick mapping of relevant Israeli Biblical history.

Abraham and the other patriarchs are usually thought to have lived in the early second millennium BC.  The exodus, with Moses, is usually thought to have happened in the 1500-1300 BC time period.  This was followed by Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the period of Judges such as Samson, and then the united monarchy including Saul, David, and Solomon, all in the 1050-930 BC period.

Image credit: FinnWikiNo via Wikipedia
Image credit: FinnWikiNo via Wikipedia

After Solomon, the northern parts of Israel, according to Biblical history, rebelled and seceded from the overall kingdom.  What followed was a period of two kingdoms: a larger northern more prosperous kingdom named Israel, and a smaller kingdom named Judah.  In 722, the northern kingdom ran afoul of the Assyrian Empire and was destroyed, with large numbers of its citizens fleeing south into Judah as refugees.  Judah itself was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians and its ruling class taken into exile in Babylonia.  Several decades later, Babylon was conquered by the Persian Empire, who allowed the exiled Jews to return to their home country, which was now part of the Persian Empire.

Anyone who has read the Bible notices that the earliest books include a lot of duplication, often telling the same story twice.  Many scholars think the reason for this is that what came down to us was someone’s attempt at integrating different versions of the stories from the northern and southern kingdoms, an editing probably done in the period 722 BC – 586 BC, that is, after Israel’s fall with many of its refugees in Judah but before the Babylonian exile.  (This view is part of what’s known as the Documentary Hypothesis.)  This is one reason why the period of the divided kingdom is often focused on for the writing of these earliest tales.  It implies that the earliest compositions may have been between 930 and 722 BC.

Another is that the history of this period as relayed in the Bible is the first time period where the described events become somewhat verifiable by other historical sources or archaeology, or at least aren’t outright contradicted by them.  For earlier periods, the further back we go, the results of archaeology diverge increasingly from the Biblical narratives.

For instance, archaeological evidence tells us there may have been a kingdom of David, but there is substantial question on its extent.  David may have been more of a southern chieftain whose kingdom grew in later legends, a narrative largely driven by the ambitions of later kings of Judah who wanted to “reclaim” the lands of the northern kingdom for a greater Israel.  In other words, there may never have been a united Israel before the divided kingdoms.  I’ve already written about the problems with the historicity of the exodus, but the evidence of the Joshua conquests also aren’t born out by archaeology.  And the patriarchal stories, even if they happened as described, are far beyond the reach of any historical verification.

In addition, Israel Finkelstein (an Israeli archaeologist quoted in the NY Times article) has written that the Biblical tales of the second millennium show a preoccupation with the middle eastern world as it existed in the 8th century BC, bearing little resemblance to the political and social realities of the second millennium revealed by archaeology.  (For example, nations that didn’t exist until the 8th century are described in much earlier contexts.)

But as we get into the divided kingdoms period, the events start to match up with other sources, such as Assyrian and Babylonian records, and archaeological evidence.

As the Times article alludes to, some Biblical minimalists take the view that nothing of the Bible was written until after the exile in 586 BC.  Some even push it back to Hellenistic times after Alexander the Great.  I’m not sure how large a share of the Biblical studies and archaeological community this view has.  Most of the consensus I’ve read has the earliest writings happening as described above, while admitting that the final compilation into a form we would recognize today didn’t happen until after the exile.  (The other end of the extreme are Biblical maximalists who insist that the Bible is historically reliable going all the way back to Abraham and that the earliest writings go back to Moses.)

It’s also worth remembering something that most who read the Old Testament notice.  The earlier stories have a strikingly different tone and outlook than the later ones, with a notably different theology.  The earlier stories imply a society more monolatristic (belief in many gods but worship of just one) or even often outright polytheistic (in some of the Psalm verses) rather than monotheistic.  But the later stories firmly establish Israel’s monotheistic character.

The earlier stories also seem far more comfortable with barbarism than the later ones.  Isaac Asimov speculated in his book on the Bible that the Judeans went into exile as barbarians, but returned as people civilized by exposure to the Babylonian and Persian cultures.

However it happened, the disparities in style imply two different cultures: a pre-exilic one, and a post-exilic one.  If that impression is correct, then it makes sense that the earlier stories were produced by the earlier culture.

I don’t know that widespread literacy was necessary in that earlier culture for us to accept this theory.  From what I’ve read, most ancient literate cultures remained predominantly oral in nature, with writing only serving as a memory aid for saving stories that were still being orally transmitted.  Although evidence of literacy certainly doesn’t hurt.

And if the earliest tales didn’t get written until after the exile, it seems like they would have evolved more over the centuries.  From what I’ve read, the events of the divided kingdoms described in the Bible line up with archaeology and other historical sources too well to  have survived unaltered by centuries of oral transmission.

Another reason scholars may be skeptical of pre-exilic composition, is that it would predate Herodotus and many other Greek compositions, that its sophistication seems too far out of the historical pattern.  But it would not necessarily predate Homer or Hesiod, and it doesn’t seem unfathomable that cultures in the region of Phoenicia, the inventors of the alphabet, would have had writing to some extent.

And we should remember that the lion share of what was written in the ancient world is lost to history.  A lot of other cultures in that region besides the Greeks and Hebrews may have had similarly extensive writings during these periods, but they just didn’t get preserved over the ages.

Even if the earliest compositions of the stories come from pre-exilic times, that doesn’t mean later post-exilic scribes didn’t apply their own theological filters when they were editing and compiling them into the form we know today.  I’ve often wondered what those earliest stories might look like if we could see them in their original form.  Unfortunately, unless someone finds a cache of ancient pre-exile manuscripts or clay tablets, we’ll probably never know.  It’s often said that history is written by the victors, but sometimes it’s just written by the survivors.

Much of the information I relayed here came from reading the following books: ‘Who Wrote the Bible‘ by Richard Friedman, ‘The Bible Unearthed‘ by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, ‘Asimov’s Guide to the Bible‘ by Isaac Asimov, numerous Wikipedia and news articles, and of course, the Bible itself.

Why the Exodus, as commonly understood, probably never happened

Exodus Gods and Kings posterAt the urging of one of my relatives, I watched Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings‘.  This relative, knowing my skeptical nature, thought I might enjoy Scott’s naturalistic (mostly) take on the events in the story.  I’m sorry to say that I didn’t really enjoy the movie, which is unusual for me because I usually do enjoy Scott’s films.  It wasn’t exactly terrible, but it didn’t entertain me much.  I can’t say exactly why, but I never felt much connection with the movie’s characters.

Not that my dislike had anything to do with it being a religious movie.  I enjoy lots of fantasy movies, and for me, Biblical movies, particularly ones that focus on the Old Testament, fall into that genre.  I watch them in the same spirit that I watch movies about Greek mythology.  That’s probably why Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments‘ remains one of my favorite movies.  If it comes on TV, there’s a good chance that I’ll watch it.

But, my dislike of Scott’s movie aside, something that my relative didn’t quite grasp is that, I’m not skeptical of the Exodus story because of the supernatural events (although I am definitely skeptical of the supernatural events themselves), but because I’ve found that trying to find naturalistic explanations for the events gives far too much credence to the overall narrative.  Exodus as commonly understood, probably never happened, not even a supernatural free version of it.

To understand why, we need to start with the fact that most Biblical scholars date the writing of the Biblical books that deal with Moses and the Exodus (the Torah or Pentateuch), in stages, during the period between the 9th and 5th centuries BC.  In other words, the stories that we now have were written several centuries after the events they describe.  It’s commonly accepted that these stories were oral traditions before they were committed to writing.  And oral traditions evolve substantially over centuries.

Of course, many will insist that the Biblical traditions are an exception.  But there are other issues.  No archaeological evidence has been found for hundreds of thousands of Hebrews wandering around in the desert during the relevant periods.  It’s natural to wonder what evidence might still be around after thirty centuries, but for a population that size, based on the evidence left for other historical events, most archaeologists feel that there should be some, and there isn’t any.

Maybe the host wasn’t as large as the Bible describes.  A smaller population might not have left as much evidence.  Perhaps, but the problems don’t stop there.  Not only does archaeology not back up the Biblical narrative, it flat out contradicts it.  Israel Finkelstein, an Israeli archaeologist, has noted that Genesis, Exodus, and other early Bible books are more reflective of the political situation in the 8th century BC, rather than the one in the 15-13th centuries BC, the period when the Exodus would have taken place.

Image credit: Wikipedia

A big issue is that Egyptian territory in the period between 1500-1200 BC didn’t end at the Sinai peninsula.   It included Canaan as a collection of vassal city states.  If Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and to the promised land, he led them right back into Egyptian territory, an important detail that the Bible never mentions.  During the period when Joshua was supposedly conquering the promised land, he would have been fighting Egypt over it.

And the Joshua conquests represent another problem.  There’s virtually no archaeological evidence of a violent invasion, as described in the Book of Joshua, during the historical period when it was supposed to have happened.  This has led most archaeologists to conclude that the Israeli people arose peacefully in the highlands, gradually swelling their ranks from the Canaanite cities after they fell into decline during the Bronze Age Collapse.

Of course, there are people who claim they’ve found evidence for the Biblical narratives, but the majority of archaeologists don’t appear to be convinced.  There’s always an industry to tell people what they want to hear, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that there are TV shows and books claiming to have found evidence, sometimes with negative remarks about how blighted the archaeological profession is for not accepting it.

(Note that it would be wrong to think of this as a dispute between religious archaeologists and non-religious ones.  Many professional archaeologists are devout believers, but most don’t let their faith cloud their professional assessment of the evidence, or lack thereof.)

Now, it does remain possible that the Exodus is ultimately based on some kind of historical event.  Moses’s name is Egyptian, a common suffix meaning “son of”.  Moses might have been an exiled Egyptian who simply dropped the family part of his name.  And he might have led a group of, say, Shasu nomads from Midian or Edom north into Canaan, perhaps bringing the cult of Yahweh with them.  This group might have formed the nucleus of what would eventually become Israel.  But until someone finds an ancient inscription pertaining to these events, it’s all speculation.

Right now, the earliest historical reference to Israel is the Merneptah Stele, an Egyptian monument reciting the exploits of their military.  It includes the line, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.”  Not much to go on, but enough to tell us that there was a people called “Israel” in Canaan at the time of this stele’s creation, sometime in the period 1213-1203 BC, and that these people had conflict with Egypt.  Maybe the tales from that conflict eventually evolved into the Exodus narrative.  But again, that’s speculation.

So, for me, finding naturalistic explanations for the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, as Scott’s movie attempts to do, is simply messing up a thrilling founding myth.  I suspect devout Jews or Christians probably weren’t satisfied by it, and neither were skeptics like me.  I think if you’re going to make a Bible movie, you should go all in and at least make it fun.

Along with numerous archaeological and historical articles, my views on this subject were informed by the following books: ‘Who Wrote the Bible‘ by Richard Friedman, and especially ‘The Bible Unearthed‘ by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein.  If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend them.

World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag

I’ve noted before that I think capabilities like human language didn’t pop into being 50-75 thousand years ago, but developed over hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions).  Well, it looks like another piece of behavioral modernity may predate anatomically modern humans:
World’s Oldest Art Identified in Half-Million-Year-Old Zigzag.

A zigzag engraving on a mussel’s shell may transform scientific understanding of what has long been considered a defining human capacity: artistic creativity.

Until now, the earliest evidence of geometric art was dated from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago. Scratched into rocks found in South African caves, those engravings signified behavioral modernity: Homo sapiens’ unique cognitive journey into a sophisticated world of abstraction and symbol.

But new analysis of an engraving excavated from a riverbank in Indonesia suggests that it’s at least 430,000 years old—and that it wasn’t made by humans, scientists announced Wednesday. At least it wasn’t made by humans as most people think of them, meaning Homo sapiens.

Rather, the earliest artist appears to have been one of our ancestors,Homo erectus. Hairy and beetle-browed, H. erectus was never before thought to have such talents.

“The origin of such cognition, such abilities,” said archaeologist Josephine Joordens, “is much further back in time than we thought.”

I’m not entirely sure I would have bought that zigzag pattern as art, but based on the article, it appears to have been a rigorous analysis.

In their Nature paper, Joordens’s group avoids terms like art, symbolism, and modernity. It’s hard to know, she said, the intentions of the engraver. But if the shell was 100,000 years old and found amongHomo sapiens fossils, “it would easily be called symbolic or early art.”

It seems increasingly evident that behavioral modernity didn’t pop into being a few tens of thousands of years go, but developed gradually over hundreds of thousands of years, with the earliest examples going back to Homo erectus, who used several tools, knew how to use fire, might have cooked their food, and was the actual first branch of humanity to migrate out of Africa.  I don’t think we should be too surprised that they might have left simple art behind.

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.


Genes show mysterious Paleo-Eskimos survived 4,000 years until sudden demise

Genetics seems to have really come into its own in recent years, shining light on many prehistoric mysteries: Genes show mysterious Paleo-Eskimos survived 4,000 years until sudden demise – The Washington Post.

New genetic research on ancient bones reveals that a prehistoric population of hunters migrated into the high Arctic of North America and Greenland and survived for 4,000 years in almost complete isolation from the rest of humanity. Then, about 700 years ago, they vanished — either victims of genocide or simply out-competed by a new population of hunters with more advanced technology, the research indicates.

This is the tale of the Dorset culture. They were colonizers of a place where no humans had ever been — a harsh world that was rich in animal resources but largely covered in ice and gripped by the long night of the Arctic winter.

Their ancestors came from Siberia. They hunted musk ox, reindeer, seals and caribou. There were only a few thousand of them, living in small bands in what amounted to a geographic cul-de-sac at the top of the world. They had minimal contact with other cultures and they must have liked it that way.

I have to admit to not realizing until now that the Innuit are relatively recent migrants into the arctic (within the last 1000 years), and that another population had once lived there.  This older population sounds like they were pretty strange.

The research looked at the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones, teeth and hair of 169 prehistoric individuals, and also took genetic samples from people living today in Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. The Dorsets were so isolated that they showed signs of inbreeding.

“It’s remarkable that there are so few connections made with Native Americans,” Fitzhugh said. “It seems to be that the combination of the high Arctic geography and the avoidance relationships between the Indian and the PaleoEskimo people contributed to this situation.”

The article notes that some of the finding are controversial.  This appears to a fairly common reaction to the results of genetic studies, but I’m noticing that it’s almost always temporary, and that the findings usually end up being accepted into our understanding of where distinct prehistoric populations came from and what they did.

I saw an older documentary on prehistoric humans available on Amazon this weekend, a large part of which was about the debate on whether modern humans evolved in Africa and subsequently migrated to the rest of the world in the last 100,000 years, or whether modern humans had evolved multi-regionally throughout the world.  I was struck by how obsolete this documentary was, since the debate is now over.  Genetics show the out of Africa theory is the right one, but those findings went through their own period of being controversial.  (It’s not a complete victory, since DNA does show there was some cross breeding between modern humans and Neanderthals.)

Ancient baby boom holds a lesson in over-population

Along the lines of last week’s discussion of Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’: Ancient baby boom holds a lesson in over-population — ScienceDaily.

Washington State University researchers have sketched out one of the greatest baby booms in North American history, a centuries-long “growth blip” among southwestern Native Americans between 500 to 1300 A.D.

It was a time when the early features of civilization — including farming and food storage — had matured to where birth rates likely “exceeded the highest in the world today,” the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A crash followed, said Tim Kohler, WSU Regents professor of anthropology, offering a warning sign to the modern world about the dangers of overpopulation.

Around 900 A.D., populations remained high but birth rates began to fluctuate. The mid-1100s saw one of the largest known droughts in the Southwest. The region likely hit its carrying capacity, with continued population growth and limited resources similar to what Thomas Malthus predicted for the industrial world in 1798.

From the mid-1000s to 1280 — by which time all the farmers had left — conflicts raged across the northern Southwest but birth rates remained high.

“They didn’t slow down — birth rates were expanding right up to the depopulation,” said Kohler. “Why not limit growth? Maybe groups needed to be big to protect their villages and fields.”

“It was a trap,” said Kohler. “A Malthusian trap but also a violence trap.”

The northern Southwest had as many as 40,000 people in the mid-1200s, but within 30 years it was empty, leaving a mystery that has consumed several archaeological careers, including Kohler’s. Perhaps the population got too large to feed itself as climates deteriorated, but as people began to leave, it would have been hard to maintain the social unity needed for defense and new infrastructure, said Kohler.

Whatever the reason, he said, the ancient Puebloans point up that, “population growth has its consequences.”

We have some advantages over ancient civilizations.  The big one over the southwest native American tribes is that we have writing, so we’re not dependent on personal memories for how the climate changes over several generations.  We can keep detailed records and observe climate cycles.  We also have archaeology and the other sciences, which allow us to study the mistakes of previous societies and to detect the early effects of our own mistakes.

Of course, none of those advantages mean much if we don’t heed the information from them.  There are a number of strategies we could use mitigate population growth, but by far the most effective is promoting women’s rights.  When young women have something in life to look forward to other than motherhood, a substantial portion of them will choose alternative lifestyles.  It’s what’s already happening in Europe, Russia, and Japan.  We just need to find a way to convince the rest of the world that it’s a good idea.

Neanderthals ate their veggies

We know this because: Found: Oldest Known Poop From a Human Ancestor | RealClearScience.

Archaeologists in Spain have dug up the oldest known feces from a human ancestor. Their find is detailed inPLoS ONE.

Retrieved from El Salt, an open-air site near Alicante, Spain, the samples date back around 50,000 years, firmly trouncing the previous record of 14,000 years.

Dr. Ainara Sistiaga and her team were able to identify the buried fecal matter by the predominance ofcoprostanol, a compund considered to be a clear biomarker of human excrement.

Besides advancing the quest to extend fart jokes further back into the Paleolithic, the find is important for a simple reason: if you want to know what went in, you have to examine what came out. Fossilized feces are the best clues we have for learning what our ancestors ate. The current discovery presents the first direct evidence that Neanderthals consumed an omnivorous diet of meat and vegetables.

Sometimes I’m glad I’m not an archaeologist, as interesting as the work sounds.  Anyway, this seems to knock down the theories that Neanderthals were primarily meat eaters.  Yet another way that they were more like us than we’ve previously thought.

On theories of why civilizations collapse and our own times

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After my post on the Bronze Age collapse and resulting discussion, I looked at other material about the collapse of civilizations, but after doing that, realized that I have some thoughts about what might be necessary for developing a theory about why collapses happen, what areas of expertise you need to have a chance at formulating a realistic theory, and how any of it might pertain to our current civilization.

Let me be clear right from the outset that I’m pretty skeptical that there is any one reason that explains all the collapses throughout history.  Every civilization has multiple vulnerabilities.  Some civilizations rot from the inside, gradually decline and eventually fall, while others are struck down in their prime either from a sudden change in climate, or by conquest by another bigger or more advanced civilization.  Seeking a single reason may be alluring, but it ignores the complexities of real history.

That said, if someone were going to try to formulate either a single overarching theory or a family of theories, there are several fields I think they’d have to be familiar with, or at least have partners that are experts in these fields, before we should take them seriously.

English: This map shows the location and exten...
Ancient Egypt; the Levant; and Mesopotamia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first, and I think most important, is history.  You need to be intimately familiar with the history of past civilizations including being up to date on the latest research.  If you don’t have this kind of knowledge, if you don’t know what actually happened in the past, then you’re shooting blindly, no matter what other expertise you bring to the endeavor.

Second, you need to be comfortable with anthropology, particularly archaeology.  Many of the collapsed civilizations you’d need to review are ancient and left few written records, particularly during their period of collapse.  That means piecing together what you can from the artifacts and debris they left behind.  At a minimum, you need to be well read in the latest discoveries and developments.

It helps if you understand economics, not only modern economics but the economies of the past, notably of agrarian societies.  This is particularly important for understanding collapses that seemed to be self inflicted.  Other fields it might be good to have knowledge of include political science, sociology, psychology, and even ecology.  But none of these latter fields can replace being deficient in history or archaeology.

All of this is important to keep in mind when someone tries to convince you that they’ve studied things and can predict that our current civilization is in danger of collapse.  As I’ve written before, there are always people predicting that disaster is right around the corner, that the current generation is going to hell in a handbasket, and that unless we clean up our act, we are doomed.

Historically, these prognostications are almost always wrong.  There were Roman authors predicting imminent disaster in every century of the Roman Empire.  It didn’t become accurate until the latter part of the fourth century.  And there have been similar predictions throughout modern times, usually focusing on whatever the troubles were in the author’s specific generation.

What these kinds of works usually are is a framework for someone to complain about what they see as immoral, corrupt, or decadent with the current society.  They may have a point with some of their complaints, but couching them in terms of civilizational collapse is often just hyperbole to give their criticisms more bite.

So, with that in mind, a few notes about our current civilization.  First, if you read history, you’ll know that we do not live in particularly corrupt or blinkered times.  People have pretty much been corrupt and blinkered throughout history, often far more than today, but somehow they muddled through it.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...
Woman during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In American history, if you read about the American Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression, or World War II, you’ll read about corruption, myopic viewpoints, and people often operating outside of their depth.  Often those who succeeded only did so because they were less out of their depth than their competition.

We also, contrary to many doomsayers, do not live in a time of decline.  At least, not by an objective measure.

Today, there are more people living longer life spans than at any other time in history.  A smaller proportion of the population are dying in wars than at any other time in history.  More people have access to health care than at any other time in history.  In western societies, more people have freedom and a say in the political process than at any other time in history.  More people have received a basic education, can read and write, and have access to the latest technology, than at any other time in history.

In many ways, we are living in an age of miracles.  We drive down highways covering distances in hours that generations ago would have taken days or weeks.  We fly through the air, traveling between continents in less than a day.  Those of us in developed countries eat food from all over the world, food that only the richest and most powerful would have had access to a hundred years ago.

The fact that there are people around the world reading this post speaks to the amazing times that we live in.  Few people imagined this kind of casual interaction across countries and continents even when I was a boy in the 70s.  The internet is the new millennium’s printing press, the killer technology bringing in a new age of rapid collaboration and progress.

None of this is to say that any of the above is perfect or that we don’t have serious problems.  We certainly do.  I think the biggest is our runaway world population.  Many of the other problems, such as global warming, are details of that problem.  And in the last century, we’ve developed the power to destroy our species, a power that is becoming more widely available.

These are problems that if we don’t come to terms with in coming years, may well threaten our civilization’s vitality, if not its existence.  But it would be overly pessimistic at this stage to assume that it’s hopeless.  The very fact that we debate these matters is a good sign.

Of course, we face a lot of other problems as well, many of which are agonizing intolerable injustices.  Certainly if you’re personally effected by one of these problems, it can feel like the whole world is moving in the wrong direction.  But when fighting these problems it’s easy to lose track of the broad trends of history, most of which are moving in the right direction.  There’s no guarantee it will continue, no guarantee we won’t screw it up, but saying that we’re currently moving in the wrong direction is missing the big picture.

The world today is more interconnected than ever before.  We have become a global civilization.  Some people express anxiety about these interconnections, seeing it as a vulnerability, particularly in relation to epidemics, financial panics, and many other threats.

But it’s those same interconnections that makes things like a regional drought only economically inconvenient, when such a drought might have ended an ancient regional civilization.  Our interconnections allow alternative food sources and other commodities to fill local supply gaps, an advantage most early civilizations lacked.

We’re also personally interconnected in our society, vulnerable to supply chains and other aspects of modern life.  In olden times, people were more self reliant, made their own shoes, soap, grew their own food, etc.  But most of them also lived short brutish, and by our standards, nasty lives having little understanding of the overall world that they lived in.

The world of previous times seems simpler and more virtuous mainly because our depictions of it are often simpler and virtuous, not because they were so.  There’s no time in prior history I would rather have lived than the one we’re in now, despite all its problems.  Those who do wish they lived in an earlier era are usually basing that wish on an idealized version of it.

Will our civilization collapse someday?  Probably.  There’s no indication that we’ve beaten the historic life-cycle, or can continue to do so indefinitely.  Are we anywhere near our collapse today?  I haven’t seen anyone make a convincing case for it, but I’m positive people will continue to claim that they have.