Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hilly Flanks

Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now

Permanent villages changed the rules for rodents. Fragrant, delicious mounds of garbage became available 24/7, and sneaky little rats and mice that could live right under humans’ noses fared better in this new setting than big, aggressive ones that attracted attention.  [..] Archaeologists long assumed that humans actively domesticated dogs, making the tamer wolf cubs into pets and breeding them to produce tamer-still pups who liked humans almost as much as humans liked themselves, but recent studies suggest that natural selection once again worked without our conscious input. Either way, though, the interaction of wolves, garbage, and humans created the animals we call dogs, which could kill the disease-bearing rodents that competed with them for scraps and even fight with true wolves, earning their place as man’s best friend [..]

Changes were very slow indeed by modern standards, but over the next thousand years they made the Hilly Flanks [a region around Southeastern Turkland, curving around the Tigris, Euphrates, and Jordan valleys, goes back to 10,000 BC!] increasingly different from any other part of the world. The people of this area were, unknowingly, genetically modifying plants to create fully domesticated crops that could not reproduce themselves without human aid. Like dogs, these plants needed us as much as we needed them [..]

Yet for all the squalor, this was clearly what people wanted. Little hunter-gatherer bands had had broad geographical horizons but narrow social ones: the landscape changed but the faces did not. The early farmer’s world was just the opposite. You might pass your whole life within a day’s walk of the village where you were born, but what a place it was—full of shrines where the gods revealed themselves, festivals and feasts to delight the senses, and gossipy, nosy neighbors in solid houses with plastered floors and waterproof roofs. These buildings would strike most people today as cramped, smoky, smelly hovels, but they were a big step up from sharing damp caves with bears or huddling out of the rain under skins stretched over branches. [..]

By imposing such mental structures on their world, Hilly Flankers were, we might say, domesticating themselves. They even remade what love meant. The love between husband and wife or parent and child is natural, bred into us over millions of years, but farming injected new forces into these relationships. Foragers had always shared their knowledge with their young, teaching them to find ripe plants, wild game, and safe caves, but farmers had something more concrete to pass down. To do well, people now needed property—a house, fields, and flocks, not to mention investments like wells, walls, and tools. The first farmers were apparently quite communal, sharing food and perhaps cooking collectively, but by 8000 BCE they were building bigger, more complicated houses, each with its own storerooms and kitchens, and perhaps dividing the land into privately owned fields. Life increasingly focused on small family groups, probably the basic unit for transmitting property between generations. Children needed this material inheritance, because the alternative was poverty. Transmitting property became a matter of life and death.

There are signs of what can only be called an obsession with ancestors. We perhaps see it as early as 10,000 BCE, with the jawless skulls of Qermez Dere, but as farming developed, it escalated. Burying multiple generations of the dead under house floors became common, mingling bodies in ways that seem to express very physically the link between property and descent [..]

Such intimacy with corpses makes most of us squeamish but clearly mattered a lot to early farmers in the Hilly Flanks. Most archaeologists think it shows that ancestors were the most important supernatural beings. The ancestors had passed on property, without which the living would starve; in return the living honored them [..]

Whether that is true or not, hierarchy developed fastest within households. I have already observed that men and women had had different roles in foraging societies, the former more active in hunting and the latter in gathering, but studies of contemporary groups suggest that domestication sharpens the sexual division of labor, tying women to the home. The high mortality/high fertility regime required most women to spend most of their lives pregnant and/or minding small children, and changes in agriculture—changes that women themselves probably pioneered—reinforced this.

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Morris' book fits quite nicely with the 3W theory - the description above is basically 1st Wave. It's funny what is considered as conservatism by most is actually a direct descendant of this peasant-minded ancestral worship.

The settled life surely appears like an advancement, maybe not compared to 2nd or 3rd waves, but one nonethelesss, compared to foraging, hunting-gathering.

Morris also discounts "Dude! Where is My Car?" approach to historical explanations, where random shit just happens; I agree - events, when big enough compared to the actors they are comprised of, are not random. Discoveries are made by multiple scientists in parallel, all the time. People can make a difference of course, by being first to do something, speeding up change (which is always good), but change, in broad strokes happens no matter what. Organized agriculture would happen, before industrialization, which in turn, would have to come before digitization.