Quick Hits: Life Before the Plow

No time for substantive commentary tonight, but I wanted to point my readers to four articles worth their time. All concern life before the Neolithic Revolution – that is, human society before the advent of agriculture and the civilizations built upon it. 

There are many common misconceptions about hunter-gather societies. This is partly because there are so few left; in the grand contest between agricultural and hunter gatherer society the agriculturalists won. By the twentieth century the only hunter gatherer societies left were those  found in remote environments where agriculture had trouble taking hold. These societies (e.g. San and !Kung bushmenAboriginal Australiansthe Hazda, or the Inuits) received considerable popular and anthropological attention during the 20th century. Consequently, the small group size, egalitarian social structures, and nomadic life style of these groups are strongly associated with hunter-gatherer society in the mind of most moderns. Many assume that the life style and social structures of these group reflect the general state of humanity before the Neolithic Revolution. 

This assumption is flawed.  The hunter-gatherer societies studied by 20th century ethnographers lived in environments of extreme resource scarcity (e.g. the Kalahari desert or the Canadian tundra). Even today few people live in these regions. This was just as true in the Neolithic.  Most humans would be found in more hospitable environments. What would hunter-gatherer societies there be like?  

Archeologists have searched for the answer to this question. What they have found upturns many of these assumptions about the nature of hunter-gather society. Well before agriculture arrives on the scene, we see evidence of inequality and social stratification, large migrations and displaced peoples, and ritual centers and buildings built of stone. Each of the following articles touches upon one of these these examples:

Alan Honick and Gordon Orians. Pacific Magazine. 31 August 2012.

…About 40,000 years ago humans began developing more complex tools and behaviors, and about 10,000 years ago, agriculture and animal domestication. For a long time researchers believed that these latter innovations, by greatly increasing the volume, reliability, and storability of food resources, were prerequisites for the development of socioeconomic inequality. However, the people of Keatley Creek still made their living by hunting, foraging, and most importantly for this story, fishing. They didn’t have agriculture or domesticated animals, except for dogs. What spurred the rise of inequality in that setting? Read the whole thing–>

Peter Turchin. Social Evolution Forum. 17 & 20 May 2013.

Most likely humans who lived in the Fertile Crescent had already known about techniques needed to intensify plant production, but for reasons we have discussed, did not deploy them. The new conditions of widespread warfare, however, imposed an intense selection regime for larger group size, because the best way to ensure tribal survival was to have more warriors. Growing their own food enabled human groups to raise more warriors and concentrate them within larger war bands. Such groups then expanded at the expense of groups that didn’t have agriculture. So we have a typical process of evolution by cultural group selection.

Why was the cultural group selection necessary? Because you cannot switch to farming when everybody else in your group is foraging. The whole group needs to shift to farming together and to acquire a new set of cultural norms, most notably, private property rights. Bowles and Choi in their paper model how this dual switch can occur. 

However, more is needed. Switching to farming makes evolutionary sense only if it leads to a larger tribe size, which is key for surviving under conditions of intense intertribal warfare. But it is not easy to keep a large group of people internally cohesive. You need a new type of social glue.

In his recent articles, including one on the Social Evolution Forum, Harvey Whitehouse argues that large-scale human societies can build up cohesion by inventing and conducting regular symbolic, or ‘doctrinal’ rituals that bring together large numbers of people. Everything we know about Göbekli Tepe suggests that it was used precisely for such rituals, and that it served a very large ritual community. It took many hundreds of people to build the monument, so there had to be a large community numbering in many thousands, since somebody had to provide the food. And it brought together population from a large area.

The cultural group selection logic also explains why agriculture was adopted despite its huge health costs. Groups of poorly nourished and perhaps even chronically sick, but numerous farmers exterminated healthy and tall foragers because of the group size advantage. So individual fitness (both in the evolutionary sense, and in the common sense of physical fitness) declined, but the evolutionary fitness of the group increased, and that is what drove the whole process….  
Read the whole thing–>

Al West. West’s Meditations. 4 April 2013.

The best example against the language/farming dispersal hypothesis comes from Australia. Pama-Nyungan languages once covered about 7/8 of Australia’s territory, including the entire east, west, south, and centre. Pama-Nyungan is a well-supported genetic entity and its languages show close relationships to one another, demonstrating that this is a family that spread relatively recently – in the mid-Holocene, perhaps, at around the same time as Indo-European. Only Tasmania and Arnhemland preserved non-Pama-Nyungan languages, and even that latter swampy, tropical land was penetrated by Yolngu, a Pama-Nyungan language on the northern tip.

Modern Pama-Nyungan speakers are also much more likely to carry the HTLV-1 retro-virus than non-Pama-Nyungan speakers, and as this is inherited, at least in part, we are probably looking at the expansion of a group of people – or at the very least we can say that the speakers of Pama-Nyungan languages share a high degree of inherited material. This means that the expansion must have been more like true migration than advection, although of course the reality of it was probably quite complicated (as it is with any language family). Just so you’re in no doubt, this means that the Pama-Nyungan expansion is attested to by both linguistic and biogenetic evidence.

Now, Australians didn’t develop agriculture before Europeans arrived, so we can’t link the expansion to the domestication of any grains or animals or whatever else. This is one of the few language family expansions that we can say right off the bat had absolutely no connection to agriculture. The trouble is, the model proposed by linguists is a little old and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t fit perfectly with the archaeological evidence as we now have it…. Read the whole thing–>

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